A wave of false information about the coronavirus pandemic has flooded Poland and other European countries.
"The amount of inaccurate information on the Internet is terrifying, even for experts who have been involved in the field of disinformation for years", says Olgierd Syczewski (CEPA, Center for European Policy Analysis) to the PolskieRadio24.pl. He points out that disinformation is based on well known social mechanisms. In the case of the coronavirus, this is based on fear, a sense of danger and therefore increased vulnerability to manipulation.
Can we identify "the culprits", the sources of fake news or disinformation campaigns? These are probably different in various cases because there are different motivations and reasons, from ignorance to a desire for profit. But our interlocutor warns that the Kremlin and Beijing are very active in current disinformation operations. "In Europe, especially in, Poland we see very intense disinformation activity on the part of Russia (...). The Kremlin's goals remain the same, only the context changes", he adds.
More in the text of the interview below.
Agnieszka Kamińska, PolskieRadio24.pl: The coronavirus pandemic caused, as someone put it, the fake news pandemic. We have been observing a lot of it in Poland. You deal with monitoring false information and disinformation tactics as an expert of CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis). Can you give us some examples of fake news that we most often come across in Poland?
Olgierd Syczewski, expert of CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis):
In my view "fake news" is a term currently abused - I would prefer to use the concept of disinformation, which is based on commonly known social mechanisms. An unknown disease caused by an "exotic" virus causes a sense of fear. In an atmosphere of danger and uncertainty, people are more easily manipulated by the information environment. As we know, "the sleep of reason produces monsters". We also know that emotions can determine many of our actions.
And so, in Poland one can come across false information about alleged government actions or plans (e.g. a shutdown of Warsaw), about alleged secrets hidden by the Ministry of Health (there were accusations of concealing the real numbers of infected people). There was a viral video presenting a charlatan who claimed to be in possession of medicine that treats COVID-19. Of course, there were more of these narratives. I want to emphasize that the amount of false information on the Internet was terrifying, even for disinformation experts.
We have been unmasking dozens of fake news in Poland these days. And what kind of fake news can we find elsewhere, for example in other countries in Europe, other countries of the world?
This is a topic suitable for a separate conversation. In the extended plan, however, we notice some narrative dominants. We must remember that fake news is only a small element of broader impact campaigns, aimed at destabilizing the information environment and weakening the coherence of international institutions, such as the European Union or NATO. Therefore, specific examples of misinformation were similar to those in Poland. There was fake news that the US and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization were "creating the virus as a biological weapon"...
We know it came from China.
Likewise, there was fake news that Western elites caused pandemic to introduce tyranny in many countries.
These are all absurd accusations. Can we point to any sources of origin of this fake news? Can we identify them?
Based on the premises of these narratives as well as their obvious political and social goals, we can with high probability indicate Kremlin as one of the sources of the disinformation campaign.
In this context we may as well remind Alexander Dugin's statements (who is a pro-Kremlin and nationalist thinker), promoting the thesis that the pandemic is only accelerating the end of "liberal elites" and political systems close to them.
Attacks on NATO, on the EU or the US are also a permanent element of Russian disinformation campaigns. In short: Kremlin goals remain the same, only the context changes.
We have been observing constant propaganda operations of the Russian Federation for many years and its goals remain unchanged. These objectives are social disintegration, information chaos, reduction of confidence in democratic institutions and international organizations. The pandemic is yet another excuse to launch Kremlin's disinformation channels. For Kremlin, the coronavirus crisis is not only a threat but also an opportunity, as my colleague and an excellent CEPA expert Brian Whitmore has stated recently in his commentary.
Of course, there are other actors manipulating communication and information environment. We see, for example, China's activities that strive to control epidemic stories to their advantage, e.g. through furious censorship of virus-related keywords in Chinese social media. However, in my opinion, in Europe, especially in Poland, most of the disinformation activity comes from Russia.
Whatever are the sources of disinformation - we need to know from which sources you can acquire legitimate information.
In today's world everyone can be a one-person medium and source of information, so we cannot forget about fact-checking, i.e. verifying information. We should base our knowledge on official sources, such as websites of relevant ministries, statements of officials or dedicated websites, dealing with explaining and verifying false information. In this case it is good to check the website of the Ministry of Health, read the messages of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of National Defence. We also have many excellent experts in Poland who disarm false information appearing on the Internet day by day. I would suggest to everyone to find 10 minutes and look both for experts and services dealing with disinformation and add them to their feed/board on Facebook or Twitter.
Each of us could contribute to the fight against fake news.
We can do this in many ways. The #FakeHunter action has just been launched and everyone can join it. In this campaign Internet users will be able to report false or questionable information that needs verification. Opinion leaders can also join this project, and, according to organizers, will be equipped with the knowledge about confirmed sources of data on the coronavirus. This is an exciting and beneficial initiative and it is definitely worth using. However, we don't know yet how effective this will be. There are many other possibilities to fight fake news, of course. This is only one of many possible ways.
The results of this fight depend partly on us and our actions.
The most important thing is not to spread false information on Facebook or Twitter. We should not believe unconditionally in "confidential messages" allegedly from "someone important in government circles" and send it to our friends. In short: we should not share questionable content on our social media. Let us remember that information war is ongoing and each of us can contribute to winning it.
Olgierd Syczewski, the Program Coordinator at the Warsaw office of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), dealing with disinformation monitoring. He coordinated CEPA’s project aimed to monitor disinformation in Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania. He participated as well as a speaker and moderator in a number of discussions about the information war and co-organized educational workshops in the field of cybersecurity and the so-called deep fakes.