Disinformation mash-up: MH17, coronavirus, Russophobia, Ukraine

Disinformation mash-up: MH17, coronavirus, Ukraine


Hybrid War

Edited by: Yuri Zoria

What do the MH17 investigation and coronavirus have in common? According to pro-Kremlin disinformation, both are apparently nothing more than Russophobic attacks by the West against an innocent Russia.

This week’s cases are a useful lesson in the opportunism and adaptability of the Kremlin’s disinformation machine, as well as its remarkable coordination across a number of different topics. Particularly striking was the synchronized messaging on two entirely unrelated topics: MH17 and the coronavirus outbreak. For the Kremlin, which is always eager to exploit a crisis for its own ends, the two topics apparently have much in common: both are evidence of Western “Russophobia”, “imperialism”, and a host of other evils.

This messaging was patently consistent across the range of disinformation outlets covered by our monitoring, once again demonstrating the high degree of narrative harmonization within the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem. It’s hardly surprising, of course: a core principle of disinformation is the adaptation of predetermined conclusions to any topic or issue in question, thereby constructing an alternate reality in which everything is twisted and manipulated to promote a particular (pro-Kremlin) worldview. It’s this principle that explains how an outlet can shamelessly mash two wholly unrelated topics into a grand anti-Western conspiracy theory, claiming that the coronavirus may be used to commit frauds against Russia in the MH17 trial.

MH17: Not quite cookie crumbs

MH17 was again in the spotlight this week thanks to the pre-trial hearings that began in Amsterdam on Monday. The four defendants – Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – face charges of shooting down the airliner and murdering all 298 people on board while holding senior posts in pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Dutch prosecutors have accused the Russian government of attempting to thwart the investigation of the crash. The list of over 200 disinformation cases on MH17 in our database corroborates this claim, with a new push this week to delegitimize the trial and JIT investigation as an anti-Russian witch hunt. Case in point: pro-Kremlin media complained that not only did MH17 investigators consistently ignore irrefutable evidence of Russia’s innocence, they even plotted to violate Russia’s sovereignty! And the outcome of the trial, they whined, is predetermined – intended to whitewash Ukraine and make Russia the culprit at all costs. There were some more creative conspiracy theories, too, like that Ukrainian security services shot down MH17 while under CIA control or that three homemade bombs were on board and somehow activated from a distance.

As the trial proceeds, expect the pro-Kremlin media to become increasingly hysterical in its denials and obfuscations. If the stakes were different, these antics would almost be cute – like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about a precocious child with crumbs on his shirt but large-scale attempts to distort the findings of an international investigation into the downing of an airliner that killed 298 innocent civilians. And in light of the evidence produced by the JIT that the plane was brought down by a missile belonging to the Russian military, the pro-Kremlin media’s howls of “Russophobia” ring worse than hollow – they are outright vile.

Going coronaviral!

Considering how easily the Kremlin feels “besieged” by the Evil West, it’s of little surprise that the coronavirus epidemic is inspiring similar disinformation narratives casting Russia as the victim, even in the context of the MH17 trial, and the West as either the evil mastermind behind the outbreak or hapless in its response to it. On the one hand, the coronavirus is presented as a tool of Western imperialism – an American biological weapon against China and other countries, an instrument of the West’s information war, even a tool of hybrid warfare waged by shadowy “world centers”. On the other hand, we’re told that Western governments are lying about the coronavirus and exaggerating the threat with help from mainstream media. Poor Russia is caught in the middle, with Western media claiming that the coronavirus is a ‘Kremlin project’. Meanwhile, NATO is using the virus for bioterrorism against the EU to fend off Russia – this is obviously why it’s being found in countries that want to cooperate with Russia.

In addition to the targeted anti-Western content, we also saw the usual cases of “chaotic evil” (per the famous Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart) – conspiracy theories and false claims intended to exacerbate confusion, distrust, and fear about the epidemic. Pope Francis has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. In Ukraine, a remedy has already been developed. Just kidding – the whole outbreak is actually a lie! (To be clear – it’s not. Wash your hands!) It appears that the pro-Kremlin media is even exploiting the crisis to spread disinformation about vaccines.

Contrast these malicious efforts to exacerbate a global health crisis with new public communication campaigns in several countries. To promote practices like proper hand-washing and social distancing, some governments are turning to goofy songs that are quickly going viral. Our favorite so far is Vietnam’s “Ghen Co Vy,” produced with support from the National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health. If only the Kremlin were as concerned with the health of its citizens as it is with spreading disinformation…

Editor’s Note

What about Ukraine?

As almost always, Ukraine was the top target of the Russian propaganda last week. Not only was it mentioned in the coronavirus-related contexts and in the false narratives related to Flight MH17 shooting down, but Russian propagandists also maintained the long-standing campaigns on Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and narratives alleging Ukraine as a failed, Nazi-led state, controlled by the US and/or the EU.

Once again the Kremlin propagandists stated that the issue of Crimea has been closed since the sham 2014 referendum (that wasn’t compliant even with Ukrainian laws and lacked international observers and took place at gunpoint amid the Russian occupation) was ostensibly carried out in full compliance with international law and the UN Charter. And now even the Hague court recognized Crimea as Russian, which never happened.

Again, propagandists turned real events upside down, calling ex-president Petro Poroshenko an American puppet (or European?) and claiming that it was the US who carried out a “coup” to overthrow pro-Russian president Yanukovych and to start the war in the Donbas, however, that’s still unclear how come that no American military was ever spotted in the Donbas, while the region has been stuffed with Russian troops, mercenaries, and brand-new equipment of various types, from firearms up to the advanced missile systems. And now, propaganda goes, it’s exceptionally Ukraine who violates ceasefires in the Donbas warzone, the Russian-hybrid forces, who only in recent days hit Ukrainian military vehicles three times, are probably angels.

According to Russian media, Ukraine is going to celebrate the birthdays of “Ukrainian Nazis” and “collaborators of Nazi Germany” instead of “Victory Day” and Ukrainian authorities betrayed the memory of WWII veterans by allegedly refusing to celebrate the V-Day which is a lie.

What was brand-new among the “old-good” narratives, was a report that the Ukrainian parliament had registered a bill to allow 14-year-olds to change their sex without parental consent. The draft law about improving the realization of rights for adolescents in the healthcare sector actually exists, but it is not about changing sex at all. Another piece of fake news claimed that a radioactive source was stolen in Zakarpattia and it might have been smuggled into the EU for malicious purposes.

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Edited by: Yuri Zoria

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