Fake news in the time of Coronavirus



On April 16, three French senators, Christian Cambon, Olivier Cadic and Rachel Mazuire, all members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and the Armed Forces published a study tilted “Disinformation, Cyber attacks and cyber surveillance: The other COVID-19 war” that recommends for the Government to set up a cyber reaction force to fight against “false news” and respond to the strategy adopted by certain foreign powers to influence online readers.

By Roland Jacquard
Writer and consultant, Chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)

The study observed that countries like China were aggressively trying to push a narrative, through inaccurate or truncated information, that attacked and was extremely damaging to the democratic principles of France and its institutions as well as other democratic nations. The study noted with concern that a communication war had been initiated by such countries, that intended to rewrite history and denigrate democracies to prepare for the reconfiguration of the post-crisis geopolitical landscape.

Ahead of the publication of the study, France witnessed weeks of misinformation that was spread by the website and social media accounts of the Chinese embassy in Paris, which finally resulted in the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs summoning the Chinese ambassador to express his disapproval.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak engulfed the world, instances of certain State as well as non-State entities spreading fabricated narratives or fake news on social or electronic media has seen a sharp rise. The disinformation has ranged from directly attacking and attempting to damage the reputation of nations to spreading false information related to COVID-19 with the objective of fear-mongering and creating panic. As rightly cautioned by the French Senators,  few countries have seized this situation of uncertainty by consistently pushing out  disinformation against its adversary, often through fake social media accounts, compromised media assets or directly through State-owned machinery.

In this connection, a report by the news website Politico, refers to a US State department study that has noticed similar anti-US messaging by Russia, Iran and China, which accuses the US of developing the Coronavirus and attempting to use it as a weapon, and completely negating the origins of the virus from China. Information hosted by government websites and State-owned media in these three countries have accused  the US troops for spreading the virus, held America’s sanctions responsible for the death of Iranians apart from showcasing China’s ability to respond to the pandemic successfully, while America was failing to do so.

A website run by Russia’s Defense Ministry, for instance, highlights the conspiracy theory that billionaire Bill Gates played a role in creating the virus. Similarly, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted an article claiming that the coronavirus could have come from the US. Another Russia Today article highlighted a claim made by the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that the virus could be an American bio-weapon.

Another country that has been observed to be circulating fake news is Pakistan. The Pakistani Army, like its Chinese counter-parts, have been known to operate hundreds of fake social media accounts to push its own narrative and resort to propaganda against countries like the US, Israel and India.

One of these narratives has been to project these States as encouraging Islamophobia. Recently, news reports of a 9000-strong Islamic Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation, held (early March 2020) in India’s capital Delhi, that resulted in more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 10 deaths, was used to fan tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India.

Though this religious congregation, comprising of Tabligh members from within India and outside, including Europe, led to dramatically spiking the number of COVID cases in the country, the false narrative created was that India was holding Muslims responsible for the spread of the virus. Matters did not end here and this propaganda was also spread in the Middle East, a region that hosts a large Indian diaspora. Our investigations have shown that a Pakistani Twitter account @pak_fauj , changed its name to impersonate the account of  Mona bin Fahd al Said @SayyidaMona , a member of the Omani royal family and push out a negative tweet that said “Oman stands with its Muslim brothers and sisters in India. If the Indian Govt doesn’t stop the persecution of Muslims, then 1 million workers living in Oman may be expelled. I will definitely take up this issue with the Sultan of Oman”. This tweet was thereafter retweeted by many including Pakistani media personnel. Interestingly, even though the Omani princess later issued a statement clarifying that the ‘offensive post’ was published through an false account that was impersonating as her account, the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi during a media briefing claimed that Oman had asked Indian workers to leave in view of the ill-treatment of Muslims in their country.

While countries like China, Iran and Pakistan are misusing the cyberspace to feed their own propaganda, they have ensured that their own citizens are kept away from any ‘outside influence’. It is , therefore, not surprising that China itself has launched a crackdown on its online outlets to curb what it calls ‘fake news’ amid the Coronavirus pandemic. As per China’s internet watchdog Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Chinese officials have deleted more than 6,000 articles and closed over 18,500 accounts since March 2020, as these accounts were promoting false information about the outbreak and causing ‘negative social impact’!