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Mon 10 August 2020
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CJ Werleman reports on conspiracy theories that the US is behind the outbreak of COVID-19, the President’s spreading of disinformation and Vladimir Putin’s interests in adding his trolls into the mix.

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If you have a Facebook account, then you may well have seen the meme that ties all of the current century’s pandemics to each of the US’ election years: SARS – 2004; Avian – 2008; Swine – 2010; MERS – 2012; Ebola – 2014; Zika – 2016; Ebola – 2018; and Coronavirus – 2020. 

The inference is clear: that somehow, shadowy and nefarious ‘deep state’ figures within the US are using infectious agents abroad to affect political change at home. There are a couple of obvious flaws in this conspiracy theory, however.

Firstly, a number of the key facts in the meme are false, including the fact that COVID-19 didn’t break out in 2020, but in 2019; that SARS was deemed fully contained in 2003; that Swine flu was declared a pandemic in mid-2009, not 2010; and that Zika was first reported late in an election year before eventually breaking out well after the 2016 Presidential Election had been decided.

“Conspiracy theories are usually half-baked; this one isn’t even ready to go in the oven,” observes the social media fact-checking group Snopes.

The second thing to note about this conspiracy theory is that it is mostly likely produced by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed online troll group indicted by the US Government for its alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, and accused by Facebook of laying the groundwork to do same in 2020.

Additional conspiracy theories are claiming, without evidence, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is behind the COVID-19 pandemic for the purpose of inflicting substantial economic harm to its emerging superpower rival, China.

In disseminating the Coronavirus conspiracies, the Kremlin aims to sow political discord in the US by exploiting and widening partisan divides, while at the same time undermining the country’s international reputation – drawing parallels with how the Soviet Union’s KGB spread a conspiracy that claimed that AIDS was concocted by the US military as part of its alleged biological weapons programme.

An internal KGB memo from 1985 read: “We are conducting a series of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years in the USA of a new and dangerous disease, ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS’… and its subsequent, large-scale spread to other countries, including those in Western Europe. The goal of these measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that this disease is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control.”

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Russia’s disinformation campaign around the Coronavirus is not only doing harm to the US’ reputation, but it is also making it far more difficult for governments to respond to the pandemic – particularly those in developing countries, with many believing the virus to be a “hoax” or overhyped, thus stymieing efforts by authorities to encourage social distancing and self-isolation precautions.

“By spreading disinformation about Coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response,” Philip Reeker, the Acting Assistant US Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told The Guardian.

Naturally, all of this brings us to the rhetoric of the current occupant of the White House – a President who has spent the past three years propagating and encouraging Kremlin-generated talking points to sow political division and undermine the country’s long standing military and diplomatic alliances; a man who remains committed to denying Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, contrary to the conclusions of all 17 of the country’s intelligence agencies.

As recently as the end of February, Donald Trump claimed that the Coronavirus was a “hoax” and an attempt by his political opponents, and even the media, to bring down his presidency. On 3 March, when there were 125 known cases of Coronavirus in the US, he dismissed the news as something that will be gone in a “few days” – even suggesting that the spread of the virus had been contained. The Mercury News has detailed 28 ways in which Trump and his administration have comprehensively misinformed the public about the Coronarvirus.

Meanwhile, the virus marches on, resulting in an unprecedented suspension of the NBA season and all flights between the US and Europe.

Despite these alarming and fast-moving developments, however, a new poll shows that only 35% of Republican Party voters are concerned about the Coronavirus, which means that Trump’s disinformation and politically-motivated downplaying of the pandemic is resonating with his most stubbornly devout supporters. This will have potentially disastrous consequences for the country.

This week, Fox News‘ Sean Hannity, who essentially performs the role of Trump’s White House Press Secretary in absentia, told his tens of millions of viewers that the Coronavirus is a “deep state” orchestrated campaign to “spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy and suppress dissent”, mirroring the Kremlin’s conspiratorial messaging.

“At times like these, people naturally want and expect a reasonable, fact-based and fully staffed Government to protect them,” remarks Jonathan Tepperman, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy. “But Americans lack one of those right now.”

At the same time as Trump supporters are being fed disinformation from the President, their social media timelines are being filled with Kremlin-generated conspiracies designed to cast aspersions on his political opponents.

That many around the world are taking their cues on the Coronavirus from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is terrifying.


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