The COVID-19 pandemic struck the world unexpectedly and presented a unique opportunity for nature to cleanse itself and catch its breath. However, the pandemic’s consequences are catastrophic for humanity.
Due to the quarantine, links created during the age of globalisation have been fractured. As a consequence, the world is drastically changing, with chaos and uncertainty becoming the new norm.
Such a situation has created the possibility of the age of globalisation to be replaced with the golden age of fake news and propaganda.
What this will develop into, no one knows, but everyone understands that we are entering a new era.
Protective face masks are becoming a symbol of this new era. We wear them in order not to infect others, but perhaps also protecting ourselves. Another symbol of this era is the increased influence of fake news on all of us.
Protective face masks, unfortunately, do not protect us from fake news, and this is becoming a major problem. For a while, fake news spread by conspiracy theorists seemed to many to be the hobby of attention-seeking losers and eccentrics.
Only this pandemic has opened the eyes of many international leaders to how this hobby of conspiracy theory losers and oddballs is just an innocent part-time activity.
Very often, these conspiracy theory heralds have puppeteers behind them. These puppeteers wear masks and it is very hard to track them down and recognise them. Nevertheless, one of the puppeteers is very notable and it is the Kremlin.
To us, the residents of the Baltic States, this show is well known and understandable. You could say that we already have a whole generation that grew up on the front lines of fake news attacks.
We understand that combatting fake news is crucial, it is an inseparable part of our national security. I believe that the Baltics are happy that this situation has finally opened the European Commission’s eyes.
According to Verslo žinios, an unpublished March report from the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) proclaimed that “the disinformation campaign on COVID-19 that emanates from Russian state news media is wide-spanning and active. Such Kremlin-supported lies aim to deepen the healthcare crisis in Western countries, to undercut public trust in national healthcare systems and to bar the way for effective responses to the virus outbreak.”
Just in the second half of March, the Lithuanian national initiative Demaskuok.lt recorded 135 instances of propaganda and disinformation in Lithuanian and Russian internet portals as well as Facebook. One of the goals of this is to undercut trust in the EU’s capacities to manage the unexpectedly emerged crisis.
“While analysing information flows in Lithuania over the first weeks of quarantine, we could note two clear trends, which reveal the goals of disinformation. Firstly, there was a targeted campaign to reduce public trust in the authorities – the healthcare system, academics, doctors and science in general. The second aim was to undercut the people’s trust in democratic institutions, which support the peaceful world order – NATO and the EU,” Demaskuok.lt analyst Algirdas Kazlauskas told Verslo Žinios.
Lithuanian political scientists have been monitoring the dissemination of fake news for a long time. According to them, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what was becoming clear for a while – the world is splitting into two, and a bipolar system is emerging.
True, we are still distant from a Cold War divide, but even how countries are making use of the coronavirus threat to improve their images is already a display of where we stand and what partners are worth accompanying.
China and Russia are leading in the coronavirus propaganda war and according to specialists, this should come as no surprise. Authoritarian states have always exploited sensitive moments for the international community.
“Manipulative strategies are at their most effective when there is tension and pressure and emotions are at their peak. The context is excellent for aggressive propaganda strategies. These regimes exploit it,” political scientist Nerijus Maliukevičius told TV3.
“It is a favourable time for such strategies because societies are overcome by emotion; everyone is angry and seeking a scapegoat. And everyone is offered to seek a scapegoat in the EU. That’s what the strategy is based on.”
The best antidote
What are the moods in Lithuania? Even if cool, Lithuanians still have emotions. Lukas Andriukaitis, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) based in Belgium, mentioned that the best antidote is professionals and specialists’ groups on social media, where they constantly share their informed insights and the latest information.
On 16 March, he said on Žinių Radijas that the greatest risk to Lithuania emanates from social media. According to him, given the relatively high level of education among our people, this might be why fake messages spread with more difficulty in Lithuania through traditional news media.
Andriukaitis points out that the most significant risks lie in closed Facebook groups, where the information simply closes up in a bubble. The same people, who do not believe in the benefits of vaccination, are also inclined not to understand most of the information related to COVID-19.
Andriukaitis also mentioned activities that appear to be coming from Russia, though DFRLab practically finds no Russian narratives in Lithuania. Russia is more focused on Russian-speakers, tries to broadcast its narratives on Lithuania through Russian language media, the specialist said to Žinių radijas.
Nevertheless, there are attempts to infiltrate mainstream media as well. On 31 January, the news portal Kauno.diena was hacked and a false message was uploaded about a US officer supposedly infected with the coronavirus.
According to Delfi, this fake news message stated supposedly that on 17 January, Lieutenant Mo was taken to a hospital in Lithuania with symptoms of the disease: fever, coughing, shortness of breath and respiratory disorders. During a medical inspection, it turned out that the cause of the disease is the novel coronavirus. The officer remains in hospital in critical condition. The head of the US battalion supposedly presented this information in Lithuania. In actual fact, the US forces in Lithuania did not release any such information.
“That story was a complete fabrication. US troops deployed in Lithuania have not been diagnosed with the coronavirus. We are thankful to Lithuanian news media for its rapid response, debunking this disinformation,” Sara Veldhuizen Stealy, foreign service officer at the US embassy in Lithuania told Delfi.
Meanwhile, on March 20, a false letter was reported as having been delivered to Lithuanian news-editorial offices, supposedly sent by a representative of the Lithuanian military. The letter’s text featured a request in the name of Minister of National Defence R. Karoblis for the US military to continue participation in the Defender-Europe 20 military exercise despite the coronavirus threat. This misled none of Lithuania’s media organisations.
Publicist and philosopher Paulius Gritėnas raises a fundamental question on the Delfi portal: how can we recognise and overcome conspiracy theories? He advises the following:
- Conspiracy theories allege concealed information or secret news.
- Doubting everything. Conspiracy theorists frequently begin their assertions with claims that you must “think with your own head.”
- It is just an opinion. Many a conspiracy theorist tries to pre-empt critics by stating that what they are about to describe are solely their opinion.
- Look for whom it benefits. One of the most important factors in a conspiracy theory is to find who could benefit from the developing situation.
- Undisclosed or unnoticed sources. Conspiracy theorists understand well that the information they spread has no preliminary credit of trust.
- Public stupidity. Very often, conspiracy theorists appeal to how the public is intentionally misled and fooled. The ironic-sounding saying “Wake up, sheeple” has emerged in English.
- Relevance and sensitivity. Very often, conspiracy theories begin to spread in the background of new, shocking events, new information.
- Fighting the system. Every serious conspiracy theorist thinks they are fighting the system. Their actions, statements and the spread of information they believe is important is combatting a supposed all-encompassing network of influence.
The journalist concludes these musings in DELFI as follows:
“We should demonstrate our responsibility not only by wearing masks, washing hands or disinfecting our environs, but also by heeding the explanations from the scientific world, checking our sources, analysing, not yielding to emotions and the pleasantly intoxicating mist of conspiracy theory.”
A survey performed in Italy shows that most citizens view China as an ally (52 per cent), then follows Russia (32 per cent) and then the USA (17 per cent). Among countries perceived as hostile, we find Germany (45 per cent), France (38 per cent), the UK (17 per cent) and the United States of America (16 per cent).
A similar survey was not performed in Lithuania during the pandemic, but I believe that trust in the European Union and transatlantic structures has not vanished in Lithuania. Likely the love for Russia has not increased either. This might be a global phenomenon, but nevertheless, recent surveys show that Lithuanians trust their authorities.
Even trust in the cabinet and government, in general, has increased during the pandemic, though one must admit that criticism toward the government has not decreased at all either. There’s always cause for criticising the government because it cannot be any other way in a liberal democracy.
It has not been found yet whether immunity to the COVID-19 virus can be developed. But since Lithuanians have endured fake news and propaganda attacks for two decades now, it seems that they have developed an immunity to these viruses.
However, it seems that we will still have to wear masks to guard against viruses for a long time.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.