Recipe for panic — disinformation

Governments that try to persuade their citizens to believe only what they want them to believe could get people killed.



February 27, 2020 - 10:00 AM

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) on Feb. 27, in Seoul, South Korea. The government there has raised the coronavirus alert to the "highest level" as confirmed case numbers keep rising. The total number of infections in the nation have risen to 1,595 with the potentially fatal illness spreading fast across the country. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images/TNS

Two opposing but equally malignant approaches to the coronavirus epidemic are emerging. One would flood the information space with lies, while the other would shut that space down to all voices but one. Their sponsors, not surprisingly, are Russia and China.

Open governments are struggling to encourage responsibility about a growing pandemic without inspiring panic. Russia appears to be trying to do just the opposite. Evidence suggests Moscow is spreading propaganda designed to stoke anxiety about the virus and distrust in authorities’ efforts to fight it. Meanwhile, citizens in China are suffering not from a deluge of misleading material but from a dearth of open discussion.

U.S. officials say thousands of Russian-linked accounts on social media have been posting “almost near identical” messages about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French — all echoing narratives on state-run media. These stories mostly target the West, alleging, for example, that the virus was forged in a U.S. lab to be unleashed on the Chinese people. Bill Gates and George Soros, in some tellings, were in on the plot.

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