#3 Inequality in the (Post)-Pandemic City: Weaponized Health Information

“Corona-related disinformation deepens the existing inequalities in the occupied territories and puts the lives of the most vulnerable categories at risk”, writes Eugenia Kuznetsova, research fellow at Kyiv School of Economics, in this essay for GRIP’s series on “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City”.

Essay by Eugenia Kuznetsova

“Corona-related disinformation deepens the existing inequalities in the occupied territories and puts the lives of the most vulnerable categories at risk”, writes Eugenia Kuznetsova, research fellow at Kyiv School of Economics, in this essay for GRIP’s series on “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City”.

Shyrokyne in the war zone in Ukraine
Shyrokyne in the war zone in Ukraine. Photo: Maria Varenikova

Building on the accomplishments of the Global Research Programme on Inequality’s (GRIP) Miniseries “COVID-19 and Inequality”, we introduce a new miniseries exploring the long durée implications of the pandemic on urban orders. “Inequality in the (Post-) Pandemic City” probes how different dimensions of inequality are shaped, exacerbated, co-exist or materialized in globally diverse urban contexts. In this series, we provide insights from researchers, scholars and specialists and ask how the effects of the pandemic, including the virus itself or the intervention measures associated with it, are impacting people and communities, particularly in relation to economic, political, social, cultural, environmental and knowledge-based inequalities.

 

Dr Eugenia Kuznetsova is the third contributor to GRIP’s miniseries. She is a research fellow at Kyiv School of Economics. She studies media environments and disinformation within the Ukrainian geopolitical fault-line cities: urban identities, geopolitics and urban policy project funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

 

 

COVID-19 Disinformation Campaigns in Ukraine Enforce the Existing Vulnerabilities

 

Ukraine has been exposed to well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns long before the post-truth term was coined and fakes started trending globally. Russian disinformation campaigns between 2013 and 2020 targeting Ukraine are well described in academic sources. The previous research shows that any event, be it Brexit, vaccines debate, anti-migrant protests in Germany, US elections, downing the MH17 jet or the pandemic of COVID-19 may become a subject for orchestrated disinformation aimed at sowing panic, fear, discord and amplifying division.

 

Global Infodemic

The pandemic is a perfect subject for “weaponized health communication” [5]: panic and fear are already in place. The misleading messages related to coronavirus are thus mostly aimed at (1) amplifying panic or uncertainty, (2) causing distrust in the institutions, and (3) pushing geopolitical agenda. These three groups of misleading narratives may and do overlap.

The first group includes any false or half-truthful narratives (often highly emotive content) related to the virus, like spreading unchecked information on coronavirus long-term effects, manipulated messages on preparations for handling thousands of corpses, giving details about planned mass burial of the dead, etc. The messages may contradict each other, but have a common goal: cause doubt and fear. For instance, a message that COVID-19 is no worse than a regular flu and a narrative that it is deadly and the statistics lie, contradict each other, but both cause chaos in the information field.

The messages of the second group, aimed at decreasing trust in the institutions, are more sophisticated. False narratives in this group include aggressive denial of quarantine measures, spreading the information about the danger of wearing masks, attacks on healthcare workers and many other similar narratives.

For instance, Russian disinformation campaign aimed at fueling the vaccination debate was most likely not aimed at undermining the health of the American citizens. Instead its goal was to cause doubts and uncertainty about the healthcare system in general and undermine trust to state recommendations regarding vaccines. The general idea is to show that there is no truth and all the information, especially messages coming from the state, are doubtful.

The third group includes misleading opportunistic messages, related to geopolitical goals of the country organizing the disinformation campaign. At least two countries, Russia and China, are accused of systematic exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic for their geopolitical goals [6].

Ukraine has been targeted by disinformation campaigns for years [7]. The coronavirus pandemic provided new opportunities for exploiting the vulnerabilities of the country and sowing discord. The existing pressing issues in the country open up a full range of possibilities for opportunistic disinformation related to the coronavirus epidemic.

Ukraine is characterized by a low level of trust towards the state institutions and officials [8] that creates a suitable environment for disinformation.

 

Deepening Inequalities in Conflict-Affected Areas

Ukraine is drained both financially and emotionally by the ongoing war: it has been more than six years since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, when Russian armed forces first annexed Crimea and then invaded Eastern Ukraine.

The war took the lives of more than 10,000 people and keeps taking the death toll. There are up to 1,5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine. 7% of Ukrainian territory is occupied: several districts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions are occupied by the unrecognized Russia-backed authorities, so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR/LPR), and Crimea is annexed by Russia.

The media environments in Crimea and unrecognized republics are somewhat different, but both entities are under Russian information dominance. Freedom of speech is absent and the media have been transformed into an instrument of political influence within the broader Russian information space [9]. The media system in the de facto statelets is rather authoritarian with vertical subordination and absence of even seemingly liberal media projects [10]. The access to these territories for Ukrainian authorities or human rights defenders is limited. The political, economic and information isolation of the “republics” makes media manipulations especially effective.

The research shows that existing media environment in the LPR/DPR makes local citizens vulnerable to disinformation and media in general is perceived as a source of constant stress to the audience due to the high level of hate speech, fomenting of inter-ethnic discord, fake news reports along with glorification of the de facto authorities, which is typical for authoritarian regimes [11]. Ukrainian authorities can only observe the situation, unable to counteract disinformation and reach the affected audiences.

Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that the coronavirus has become another opportunity for media manipulations in the occupied territories. The monitoring of the two local information agencies between April and June 2020 showed that the selected media readily echoed Russian propaganda related to the coronavirus, manipulated messages about epidemic developments in Ukraine and spread fake narratives [12].

Echoing Russian propaganda, – apocalyptic messages on corona developments in the West and glorifying Russian healthcare, – enforces the isolation of the occupied territories and sows panic about the outer world. This makes the local audience even more vulnerable and misinformed about the current developments regarding the epidemic. For instance, Russian media announced production of three vaccines back in April 2020, while Russian vaccine testings were still ongoing. Such exaggerated hopeful messages may push the local population to adapt their plans according to this news, putting their health at risk.

In the occupied territories, the media are openly defined by self-proclaimed authorities as the military subdivision. Any pluralism under such circumstances is unimaginable. Moreover, the media fulfill the military tasks, undermining the image of the enemy (in this case it is Ukraine and the West) and glorifying the power of local “governments” and Russia. Coronavirus is regularly mentioned in the manipulated reports about Ukrainian armed forces along with other “sins” of Ukrainian army.

Such an attitude to the role of the media puts the most vulnerable categories at risk: people with health issues, the elderly, women and children. Manipulated messages about the COVID-19 statistics in Ukraine, fake reports about moving hospitals for coronavirus treatment to border towns or OSCE ceasing its observation, put the health and sometimes lives of these vulnerable groups in danger.

Elderly and women with children cross the contact line most frequently. Many retired Ukrainians who did not leave the occupied territories are dependent on the social payments from the Ukrainian government. They are able to receive their payments in government controlled areas only and thus cross the contact line on a regular basis.

Many of those who stayed in the occupied territories receive medical supplies or have families across the contact line. Without reliable information about quarantine restrictions and coronavirus developments in Ukraine, these people may make poorly informed choices.

They may choose to stay in the occupied territories, being unable to receive payments or treatment. For instance, drug replacement therapy is not accessible in Russia, Crimea or DPR/LPR and drug users cross the unrecognized borders to get methadone they receive in government-controlled territories of Ukraine [13]. Lack of reliable information may leave these people, many of them HIV-positive, without access to vital services.

In June, there was a case when those crossing the contact line, including women and children, got trapped at the checkpoint, since they were not properly informed about the quarantine restrictions in Ukraine. They had to spend hours waiting in the grey zone threatened not just by the coronavirus, but also by shelling [14].

Thus corona-related disinformation deepens the existing inequalities in the occupied territories and puts the lives of the most vulnerable categories at risk.

 

Coronavirus as an Agent of Geopolitical Games

Ukrainian media also misreported the coronavirus situation in the occupied territories several times, when the news based on the quotes of the officials, who spread unchecked rumors regarding the COVID-19 statistics in DPR/LPR.

Yet disinformation associated with coronavirus in Ukraine is mostly related to Russian geopolitical games.

One of the first disinformation campaigns fueled by Russian state media during the quarantine was a narrative about American biological labs in Ukraine. The campaign was analyzed by Institute of Mass Information, a local NGO and debunked by StopFake, a partner of Facebook in Ukraine in detecting fake reports.

The campaign centered around a petition on the website of Ukraine’s President calling to investigate the activities of American biological labs in Ukraine. Any citizen of Ukraine can create a petition and dozens of them are registered regularly.

Russian media manipulated the message that Ukrainian citizens are worried about American labs in Ukraine, which conduct biological experiments and may have developed COVID-19. Ukraine-based editions associated with pro-Russian political forces (mostly owned by Russia’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk) joined the disinformation campaign, generating 66 online materials about the labs in six days [15]. The American Embassy in Ukraine had to interfere and debunk the fake [16].

The story was however transformed into another false narrative that a microchip implant will come with coronavirus vaccines. The microchip fake was sometimes related to anti-Soros conspiracy theories. There were also narratives that the virus was artificially created by transnational corporations based in the US or that previously mentioned American biolabs in Ukraine use COVID-19 as a biological weapon. These stories are typical of anti-Western rhetoric that were spread by the Russian state media since the early 2000s.

Coronavirus is also used for political discreditation of the opponents and Ukrainian media landscape is, unfortunately, not unique in this regard. For instance, coronavirus panic is used by the opponents of the medical reform in Ukraine to roll the implemented changes back and discredit the ex-Minister of Health, saying a reformed system is not capable to deal with the epidemic in contrast to the old Soviet one. At the regional level, local authorities take advantage of the lack of trust in the government and coronavirus skepticism among the population to resist the quarantine measures and increase their approval rating for the upcoming local elections in October 2020.

***

The case of Ukraine shows that coronavirus disinformation easily becomes a weapon in the hands of propaganda machines, especially in the territories with limited freedom of speech like DPR/LPR and Crimea. Authoritarian media systems make any coordinated counteraction to the disinformation campaigns impossible. Local populations are exposed to misleading and manipulative narratives on a daily basis. Opportunistic exploitation of coronavirus affects the vulnerable groups, such as internally displaced persons, elderly, women, HIV-positive and others, deepening the existing inequalities.

Disinformed public, affected by the propaganda messages, are unable to make informed decisions regarding their movements and cannot properly evaluate current health risks. Undermined trust of the state authorities reduces the willingness to follow the recommendations of the government and quarantine restrictions, increasing the risk of uncontrolled spread of the virus.

While some media consumers try to enhance their media literacy and navigate the media space in a more conscious way, the media environment in general remains unhealthy and still affects everyone involved. “Patchwork” effort aimed at debunking certain false narratives, implemented by a number of media organizations in the country, is not likely to change the general situation especially taking into account the fact that some of the fake narratives about coronavirus are not just misinformation, but a part of well-coordinated disinformation campaigns. Weaponized health information in a networked world is becoming a global problem that requires global coordinated action.

The areas that have suffered from conflict, displacement and that are targeted by well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns (not necessarily related to the coronavirus) for a long period of time, are getting more vulnerable in terms of resisting disinformation and need special support, since their trust towards any authorities is considerably undermined due to a number of reasons, including the persistent information attacks.

By Eugenia Kuznetsova

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/12/world/europe/liberal-leader-from-ukraine-was-poisoned.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/17/alexei-navalny-novichok-bottle-of-water-hotel-room

[3] https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/780406-navalnyi-toksikolog-omsk-intervyu

[4] https://www.kp.ru/daily/217172.5/4273948/

[5] Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137759/

[6] Jankowicz, Nina, and Henry Collis. “Enduring Information Vigilance: Government after COVID-19.” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 50, 3 (2020). https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol50/iss3/4

[7] See for instance: NATO StratCom Center of Excellence (CoE), Analysis of Russia’s Information Campaign against Ukraine (Riga, Latvia: NATO StratCom CoE, September 2014), https://www.stratcomcoe.org/analysis-russias-information-campaign-against-ukraine.

[8] 77% of respondents did not trust state institutions (officials) and 64% did not trust the government as of February 2020: https://razumkov.org.ua/napriamky/sotsiologichni-doslidzhennia/otsinka-gromadianamy-diialnosti-vlady-riven-doviry-do-sotsialnykh-instytutiv-ta-politykiv-elektoralni-oriientatsii-gromadian-liutyi-2020r

[9] Council of Europe (2016) Legal remedies to human rights violations on the Ukrainian territories outside the control of the Ukrainian authorities. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2014_2019/documents/d-ru/dv/dru_dua_20161214_08/dru_dua_20161214_08en.pdf

[10] Eugenia Kuznetsova, Media systems in unrecognized states: “people’s media” in “people’s republics” (preprint). Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342673910_Media_systems_in_unrecognized_states_people%27s_media_in_people%27s_republics

[11] Yastrebova V, Lisyansky P, Pashchukov S, et al. (2019) Media and Russian Propaganda in the Occupied Territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, Report. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wdlSKyjOxG1sU3Scw3Ngw8X_k_GfLXE1/view.

[12] See the details: Eugenia Kuznetsova, Coronavirus “infodemic” in Donbas war zone. Available at: https://neweasterneurope.eu/2020/09/01/coronavirus-infodemic-in-donbas-war-zone/

[13] Death by disdain: the fate of drug users in Russian-occupied territories: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/crimea-ukraine-drug-users-fate/

[14] https://www.unian.ua/war/punkti-propusku-na-donbasi-u-siriy-zoni-zastryagli-desyatki-lyudey-novini-donbasu-11051129.html

[15] https://ms.detector.media/manipulyatsii/post/24717/2020-05-21-rosiya-boioviki-ta-opzzh-khto-poshiryue-feik-pro-sekretni-laboratorii-ssha-v-ukraini/

[16] https://ua.usembassy.gov/u-s-ukraine-partnership-to-reduce-biological-threats/