I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.
Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.
Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:
As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.
It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.
What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).
I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.
‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.
Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:
‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)
‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)
‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)
‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)
‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)
Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.