Over the last month, scientifically unconfirmed information has circulated on the internet. Articles featuring preventive measures in fighting the coronavirus, plagued the internet. The articles promoted drinking water every 15 minutes, increasing the intake of vitamin C, garlic or onion as measures that will help to avoid the COVID-19 virus.
Among the worldwide spread news is the one that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 disease, was intentionally created in a laboratory. Other circulating fake news showed images of tank cars carrying the dangerous virus or claimed that airplanes sprayed viruses in the air.
ZdG analyzed some of the widely spread false information related to COVID-19 to show that a large number of people easily believed the information and shared it.
In the middle of March, a photo appeared on the Internet showing a tank car with the inscription COVID-19. Some commented that that tank is carrying the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, while other posts stated that the tank contains the vaccine for the disease caused by the new coronavirus. However, the world press wrote that such a tank car does not exist and the inscription was added with the help of photo editing programs.
Journalists who checked the photo found that the tank car belongs to an American railroad company. They carry oil, and the actual inscription on the wagon consists of two to four letters and six digits and represents the identification code of the wagon, not the freight transported.
In Romania and Moldova, a piece of false information revealing that someone will spray something in the air became popular. “Close your windows, they will spray something in the air at 11 p.m. Share with someone else,” stated the message. The information induced the idea that the so-called spray measures are related to the epidemic generated by the new coronavirus. The message was massively distributed on social networks and through messaging applications. Romanian authorities from several counties denied this information.
The 70 New Cases from the Hâncești District, in the Center of Moldova, and President Igor Dodon Calling for the Tanks of the 14th Army
In mid-March, when Moldova registered under 30 cases of COVID-19, a blog of pseudo-news headlined: “Breaking news! 70 new cases of coronavirus detected in the Hâncești district.” The news came from an obscure source and it was obviously false. However, thousands of social media users perceived it as true, distributing it to an even larger number of people. For example, over 3,500 users redistributed a post shared by a certain Alexei Chircu. The fake news was deleted after a few days.
The same Alexei Chircu distributed another fake news related to the coronavirus from the site caramida.news.blog. “Shocking! Dodon calls for the tanks of the 14th Army from Tiraspol: Moldovans are being annoying” the fake news headlined. The fake news reached Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, and was published and redistributed thousands of times. Although the pages of the site warned “Attention! Pamphlets follow, read them as such,” few of those who accessed the site noticed this detail.
Another fake news published on this site announced that all Moldovans with Romanian citizenship will be forced to give up Moldovan citizenship. The fake news reached thousands of people, distributed especially among the groups of Moldovans from the diaspora, who own dual citizenship and who felt directly affected by such a measure.
We messaged the alleged user Alexei Chircu, who created his Facebook profile at the end of January, to find out why he spread fake news online, but he did not respond.
A Website With a Religious Profile is Distributing Fake News.
Aparatorul.md is a website with a religious profile that calls itself the leaflet of the Orthodox Legal Movement of Moldova. The website has news with apocalyptic headlines and images. And with the advent of the coronavirus, the website has already published over 100 pieces of so-called COVID-19-related news. One of the headlines on this website, published at the beginning of March, ran: “Coronavirus. People are panicking. The hunt for the sick began. VIDEO” The news concluded as follows: “What is actually happening? Is it a deliberate genocide or a folly? Meanwhile, in China, the sick are hunted like this.” The video clip represents an exercise of the Chinese authorities, not a hunt for the sick people.
Here is another headline that can create a state of panic during the current coronavirus pandemic: “Can it be true? How death comes from the air. They spray with avian influenza viruses, SARS, swine flu.” The text says that “these chemtrails (chemical traces left by airplanes) contain barium salts and aluminum that supposedly are used in military applications in the deflection of radio and light waves. Subsequently, viruses, bacteria, microbes, fungi, and various biological agents are introduced to be tested on the population.” In fact, the scientific community dismisses the so-called chemtrail conspiracy theory, and asserts that they are condensation trails left by aircraft engines.
After the first reports of COVID-19 disease appeared in China, people became more concerned about virus-related topics and diseases. And although the article was written in November 2018, it has been massively distributed since January 2020. Meanwhile, on Facebook alone, the article about viruses sprayed by a plane gathered over 80,000 shares, more than 25,000 comments, and over 200,000 reactions. Almost 400 pages and groups on Facebook distributed the link.
(INSERTIE TITLURI COVID)
Other manipulative titles on Aparatorul.md:
- It happens in Romania: If both parents get to the hospital because of COVID-19 virus, the children will be taken over by the state;
- Churches are closed, prisons are opened: the UN is calling for the immediate release of prisoners from around the world to avoid COVID-19 virus spread;
- An NGO supported by SOROS is using the COVID-19 crisis to destroy the traditional family!
- Do you think it is normal? Telephone operators will disclose location data of mobile phones to track the spread of the pandemic;
- Coronavirus is used as a propaganda element to ban cash;
- After coronavirus, there will be depravity infection – President promulgates child sex education law;
- Patriarch Chiril’s personality finally came through: He asks the worshipers not to attend church. There is a risk of pulmonary disease.
The Authors of the Website are Unknown.
Aparatorul.md was registered in 2012 and is active on the most popular social networks in this area: Facebook (where it has over 40,000 followers), Instagram, telegram, ok.ru or vk.com. However, the website does not have an author, and the contacts section contains only two email addresses, with no telephone number or postal address. We tried to get in touch with those who manage the site through emails and the Facebook page, but we did not receive any response.
There are three phone numbers on Ask the lawyer page of the website, which are there to provide legal consultations on religious topics. One of the phone numbers was disconnected, and the other two responded. Initially, the interlocutors promised to give us the contact details of those who run the site. However, we soon received the following SMS messages: “I couldn’t find any contact and please do not bother me on this subject. Have a good day!” and “Did not find anyone, sorry.”
“We Are Vulnerable to Fake News.“
Lilia Zaharia, a journalist at Stopfals.md, an online platform managed by the Independent Press Association, which debunks fake news, claims that this coronavirus pandemic revealed that we are vulnerable to fake news.
“Social networks abound in conspiracy theories that the coronavirus originated either from bats or cats. However, articles about miraculous cures of the infection, such as eating lemon or drinking water to the refusal, increases the panic. The worst thing is that sometimes journalists or newsrooms spread the lies. The cure against fake news is in our hands. We can treat ourselves rather fast with the help of the keyboard, looking for the signs of a fake news on social networks. We should draw attention to the source of information. We shouldn’t open websites with dubious extension, but report it as fake,” warns the journalist, who has been in charge of revealing obviously biased and fake news for the last three years.
Lilia Zaharia pointed out the clues by which we can tell if we read a true or a false piece of news. “We need to know how to differentiate between a dubious site and a credible portal. You should know that if a website does not have contact details or information about the editorial team, it is not a website designed to offer information, but built to gain views.
All materials must be authored, and the names should be real. Another sign of a fake news is the misleading title. As a rule, such titles appear in capital letters, with grammar or punctuation errors. Similarly, the content of the fake news lacks accuracy. Most fake news websites contain many mistakes. If you are shocked or hit by some sensational information that seems hard to believe, make a small effort before distributing it. You have to check other sources for the same information, the sources you usually use to get informed. Currently, Facebook is providing us with a tool we can use to report the information as false. Let’s use this tool and notify our colleagues, friends, neighbors that it is disinformation! Doctors do their duty in hospitals, and we should cure the information space,” says Lilia Zaharia.
The Security and Intelligence Service: We Continuously Monitor Disinformation and Manipulation Activities
On March 20, the Information and Security Service of Moldova announced that they blocked 52 websites that broadcast fake news, including news about the COVID-19 virus. Subsequently, the list was supplemented with two more sites.
ZdG asked the Security and Intelligence Service if the institution continues to monitor the fake news issue, how they do it in practice, and if they will block other websites spreading fake news.
“In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Security and Intelligence Service continuously monitors the activities of disinformation and manipulation of public opinion in Moldova. Moreover, some non-governmental organizations and citizens show responsibility and respond to our requests to support us in fighting disinformation and the fake news manipulating public opinion. Thus, the Security and Intelligence Service receives the information and recommendations regarding the fake news websites and takes action. We cannot give you more details about the forms, the methods, the means and the results of the special investigation activities as this is classified information,” the Security and Intelligence Service responded.
Disinformation on COVID-19 – a Global Phenomenon
The European External Action Service of the European Union prepared a report about the disinformation on COVID-19 as a global level phenomenon. According to the report, disinformation and misinformation around COVID-19 continue to proliferate throughout the world, with potentially harmful consequences for public health and effective communication. Moreover, the same report claims that in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere, coordinated disinformation messages seek to frame vulnerable minorities as a cause of the pandemic and to fuel distrust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver effective responses. At the same time, some state-backed actors seek to exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by directly challenging the credibility of the EU and its partners. The report also provides a short overview of disinformation activities related to COVID-19 in different corners of the world:
Global: Claims that the EU is disintegrating in the face of COVID-19 are trending on social media in all analyzed regions. Among COVID-19-related content published by RT and Sputnik, articles covering conspiracy narratives such as that “the virus was man-made” or intentionally spread, typically received more social engagement than other stories.
EU: Disinformation and false health advice on COVID-19 continues to circulate on social media, in contradiction to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) official guidance and the internal policies of online platforms. For instance, Sputnik Deutschland promotes the claim on Facebook and Twitter that “washing hands does not help”. Evidence shows that online platforms continue to monetize COVID-related disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Africa: Hate campaigns against social and ethnic groups are going viral in some countries. China’s proactive communication around support delivery creates reputational challenges for other donors.
China: state media and government officials promote not proven theories about the origin of COVID-19. Chinese coverage highlights displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid.
North Africa and the Middle East (Oman). Daesh encourages militants to exploit the chaos and confusion around COVID-19, presenting the pandemic as a “painful torment” against “crusader nations”. The Syrian regime is using COVID-19 to attack EU sanctions. EU Member States are portrayed as unable to assist each other or stealing resources for local use
Russia: More than 150 cases of pro-Kremlin disinformation on COVID-19 have been recorded in the EUvsDisinfo database (since January 22). Russian state-controlled media outlets have shifted their focus to highlight Russia’s preparedness to tackle the outbreak. Russian aid to Italy was extensively covered.
Turkey: False and distorted health information continues to circulate widely in the social media, while COVID-19 is nurturing anti-EU discourses and criticism towards the EU, also more publicly.
Western Balkans: conspiracy theories suggesting the virus is a U.S. bioweapon or pretext for a foreign invasion continue trending. The COVID-19 crisis is linked to the existing narrative that the EU is “turning its back” on the Western Balkans.