Strengthening the resilience and capacities in dealing with COVID-19 and fake news
Elmas Hasanovikj, MIS
The EU and NATO have been under an intense and well-coordinated hybrid attack with fake news. This paper analyzes the challenges in dealing with COVID-19 and disinformation campaigns during the pandemic. The analysis mainly focuses on disinformation campaigns targeting the EU and NATO, sponsored by Kremlin and Beijing, and sorts them into four main categories. China’s strategic interest is repairing its international image for failing to deal with the COVID-19 and deepen economic and political ties with European countries through its “Belt and Road” and Huawei’s 5G network projects. In contrast, after its international isolation due to the annexation of Crimea, Russia seeks a way to show itself in a better light (Papageorgiou, 2020). Thi paper contains several recommendations for strengthening the resilience and capacities in dealing with COVID-19 and fake news and illustrate these recommendations with some examples.
Keywords: #COVID19 #fakenews #China #Russia #EU #NATO
The international expert community is louder in saying that the so-called ‘soft’ security issues, such as global health, climate change, migration, and other hybrid threats, will be greater and more intense than the so-called ‘hard’ security issues, such as the threat from conventional or nuclear weapons (Toosi, 2020).
The EU and NATO allies are faced with two challenges: dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘infodemic’ with fake news. As the world is preparing for the ‘second wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, a key aspect of keeping people safe and healthy is ensuring accurate and timely delivery of health-related information (OECD, 2020). For example, wrong health advice and misinformation, including fake cures such as “drinking pure alcohol,” and disinformation and conspiracy theories about the “miracle cures,” continue to travel far on social media (EUvsDisinfo, 2020).
On the other side, nearly 426 media freedom violations were registered, while 17 countries in the world have passed 'fake news' regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic (International Press Institute, 2020). Most of these countries are governed by populists or authoritarian regimes with a ‘strong fist,’ who exploited the crisis to adopt ‘laws for fighting fake news, when in fact, these laws are restricting the free flow of news for reporting the authorities’ efforts in dealing with COVID-19. During the pandemic, there was also a profit-making component. Many media outlets have exploited the crisis to generate profit by creating click-bait stories.
According to the UNESCO Handbook entitled “Journalism, ‘Fake News & Disinformation,” fake news is composed of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is “information that is false, but the person who is disseminating it believes that it is true,” disinformation is “information that is false, and the person who is disseminating it knows it is false'' (Ireton et al., 2018, p. 44). More precisely, it is an intentional lie fabricated and released by malicious actors whose aim is to disinform people to achieve specific goals actively.
This paper examines the fake news narratives originating from Russia and China and provides recommendations on strengthening the resilience and capacities in dealing with COVID-19 and fake news.
Fake news campaigns
US officials blame Moscow's military intelligence service officers (GRU) for spreading disinformation about the pandemic through English-language websites (Voice of America, 2020). Stanford’s Internet Observatory study on fake news found that these fake news narratives have targeted only a few countries and one bloc: the US, the UK, France, and the EU (Bush, 2020). This study reveals that the US was the subject of approximately 50% of harmful content on RT, followed by the UK (10%), France (6%), Italy (2%), and Germany (2%).
Russia’s primary goal is to preserve its status as a great power in global affairs. Thus, Russia’s only option is “to act in an obstructive manner to undermine the EU and NATO” (Bechev, 2019). There were many fake news campaigns with anti-NATO, anti-US, anti-5G, and anti-EU narratives during the pandemic, which traveled on social media web portals, and national TV stations. These narratives discredit and undermine the unity among EU and NATO member-states by disseminating fake news for lack of cooperation in providing aid to its allies and their efforts in developing a cure for COVID-19. These same narratives glorify Russian and Chinese aid and medicine simultaneously.
Russia’s destructive presence and behavior in the Western Balkans and Baltic region are well known. Russia has tried to block Montenegro's and North Macedonia’s accession to NATO by executing subversive and proxy activities. In an interview, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in North Macedonia stressed that Russia sees North Macedonia as a “legitimate target” if tensions between Russia and NATO increase (Shcherbak, 2018), while the then-deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that Montenegro would come to regret its decision to join the Alliance (Conley, 2019).
During the pandemic, fake news narratives mainly targeted the US, NATO, and the European Union. There were plenty of fake news narratives and sub-narratives developing over the entire period, but this paper groups them into four categories.
1. US troops are secretly being deployed in Europe “while the media entertains us with the coronavirus.”
Articles with almost the same content and title,”40,000 US troops are deployed in Europe. At the same time, the media entertains us with the coronavirus,” have appeared on several web portals, mainly from Bosnia and Herzegovina and other neighboring countries. Several days after that, another series of articles with almost identical content and title, “Germany in panic: 70,000 American soldiers landed in Hamburg - tanks on all sides,appeared on several web portals in North Macedonia and neighboring states. This narrative has targeted the NATO exercise “Guardian Europe” by presenting it as a covert operation. This narrative aimed to falsely convince people that US troops were immune to the coronavirus. The United States possessed a vaccine that it hid from the rest of the world. It is a “deliberate and intentional creation of a conspiracy theory whose ultimate goal is to present the United States and its allies in a negative context, and at the same time to create a sense of insecurity among the citizens” (Aleksoska & Hasanovic, 2020).
2. 5G is harmful, and 5G antennas spread the virus.
This narrative aims to falsely convince people that the 5G network is harmful and that 5G antennas spread the virus. The result was evident; in some countries, people were submitting petitions for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G technology, whereathe 5G antennas were burned in some countries. The ultimate goal is to slow down the pace of the rollout of 5G by the US and other Western European countries, creating ample room for Russia and China to implement their own 5G network. For example, in the wake of the pandemic, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) instructed telecom operators “to ramp up standalone 5G network coverage in China,” with the target by the end of this year to have 300,000 active 5G antennas (Clarke, 2020). Russia also sped up the rollout of its 5G network, deploying 25,000 base stations across the entire country (Daws, 2020).
Both Russia and China have a strategic interest to be the first to introduce and implement 5G technology because whoever is the first will set the standards for 5G, both economically and security-wise. For example, the 5G network is expected to generate 13.2 trillion US dollars in the world economy by 2035 (Lu, 2020). The security standards are of more significant concern for the EU and NATOl because they affect civil society and military operations (Stoltenberg, 2019). Another risk is that “Huawei could be used by China for spying, via its 5G equipment,” knowing that its founder Mr. Ren Zhengfe was a former member of the Chinese Army (the People's Liberation Army) and member of China's Communist Party (Bowler, 2020).
The simultaneity of this narrative developing in North Macedonia amidst its increased involvement with Western organizations is one stark example. More specifically, this narrative started to develop on March 25, 2020, when North Macedonia received a ‘conditional green light’ for starting accession talks to join the EU, reaching its peak on March 27th, the day North Macedonia became the 30th fully-fledged member of NATO (Aleksoska, 2020). This narrative aimed to defocus the public on this critical moment and create a sense of fear and insecurity among citizens.
The ‘second wave’ spread the narrative that 5G allegedly causes and spreads COVID-19. Many experts around the world, including the European Union, have denied these conspiracy theories, asserting there is no link between 5G technology and the coronavirus (European Commission, 2020).
3. Globalists implant microchips in vaccines to ensure control over people.
This narrative originated from Russia as well. The Russian communist leader Gennady Zyuganov accused the ‘globalist’, particularly Bill Gates of “implanting microchips into humans to ensure their ‘digital enslavement’”(The Moscow Times, 2020). This narrative is partially a continuation of the previous narrative, to falsely convince people that microchips receive signals from 5G antennas so “the globalists” can control people all over the world (Evstatieva, 2020). At the same time while this narrative was developing, another narrative glorifying Russian and Chinese aid and medicine was developing too. The main goal was to create a false picture that Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, are saviors of the world. So, the question that arises here is, how can vaccines only from Western countries have microchips while Russia’s do not?
4. The EU and NATO are failing to deal with COVID-19, and they are on the verge of collapse.
Both China and Russia have used the pandemic to promote their ‘health diplomacy’ to advance their own geopolitical interests. This narrative spread mainly by Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik, was to undermine NATO’s and the EU's response in dealing with the crisis. This narrative aimed to create a false picture that the European Union is disintegrating, not tackling the pandemic, and has betrayed its core values in the region's response while at the same time glorifying Moscow’s and Beijing’s strategy to combat COVID-19 and the support coming from their countries (EUvsDisinfo, 2020).
Beijing and Moscow have cited the most affected countries, like Italy, Spain, Greece, and Ukraine, as states that were allegedly abandoned by its European and NATO Allies. At the same time, they ridiculed the aid coming from them in other cases. For example, in North Macedonia, the aid from the EU was reported with a measure of sarcasm, and the slogan “EU for You” became “Blanket for You” (F2N2, 2020). All of this was done to “cover-up” the financial and medical aid North Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries have received from the European Union. NATO, through its EADRCC, has played a crucial role in coordinating and delivering aid to seven Allied and nine partner nations that have requested international assistance through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC - COVID-19, 2020).
In sum, the European countries are extremely important to China and Russia. China’s strategic interest is repairing the international image for failing to deal with COVID-19 and deepen economic and political ties with European countries for its “Belt and Road” and Huawei’s 5G network projects. In contrast, after its international isolation due to the annexation of Crimea, Russia seeks a way to show itself in a better light (Papageorgiou, 2020).
The questions that then arise here are, what can we learn from the pandemic, and what steps do we need to take to strengthen the resilience of our societies? In addition, this paper provides several recommendations on strengthening the resilience and capacities in dealing with COVID-19 and fake news.
1. Increased cooperation between the EU and NATO will strengthen the resilience of our societies.
Strengthening transatlantic ties is crucial to fighting common enemies such as COVID-19 and ‘infodemic’ with fake news. At the press conference after the ministerial meeting in April this year, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that the Allies should begin to analyze the long-term consequences and lessons learned on how to strengthen the resilience of their societies, as well as NATO's political ability to more effectively prevent and deal with crises when they occur (NATO, 2020).
The Civil Emergency Planning Committee (CEPC) is NATO's highest advisory body for protecting civilians and the use of civilian resources for NATO purposes, overseeing the work of the Euro-Atlantic Coordination Center for Crisis Management. EADRCC is the main emergency response mechanism in case of natural disasters and the place where requests for humanitarian aid arrive; after requests have been processed, they are sent to NATO member states, international organizations, and partner countries. NATO does not have its own specialized units for dealing with civilian crises because, according to Article 3 of the Washington Treaty, countries are obliged to build their own capacities, whereby EADRC coordinates national agencies for dealing with crises and emergency situations from NATO member and partner countries. However, not all countries have the capacity to deal with natural disasters and large-scale crisis situations on their own. For example, many Balkan countries are not capable of dealing with any crisis situation on a grander scale.
Like NATO, the European Union has its own civil protection mechanism and Rapid Response Coordination Center, through which the European Commission provides support in coordinating disaster relief assistance in Europe and beyond. Because most NATO member-states are also members of the European Union, to avoid duplication of funds and resources, all possibilities of greater cooperation between NATO and the EU should be exploited.
In that direction is the idea to strengthen the capacities of the Balkan countries through the establishment of a Regional Center for Crisis Management in the NATO context, whose main feature would be the establishment of multinational rapid response teams/units for crisis management in the Balkans, which shall be composed of civilian and military personnel. The existence of any center of this kind would serve as a permanent task force of the EADRCC. The aim is for centralized management and execution to significantly maximize crisis management ca, shorten the time for response, establish common resources, shorten the time for response, and establish common resources to avoid doubling the costs. These teams, which include partner countries, shall be mobile and ready to deploy 24/7 throughout the year to deal with any kind of crisis situation, not only those related to the pandemic.
Finally, as a lesson learned, NATO Allies should seriously consider the option of establishing some sort of NATO Fund for Crisis Management in which a certain percentage of the minimum 2% of GDP would be allocated to this fund needed to procure the necessary assistance and equipment, in a form of joint contribution. As an illustration, the defense expenditures in 2019 for 29 NATO member states were estimated at around US $ 1.039 trillion. If a minimum percentage of these budget expenditures were set aside for this purpose on an annual basis (for example, 0.05%), a significant amount of money would be allocated for these needs in the future.
2. Establishing specialized teams for fighting fake news and propaganda.
In 2015, under the auspices of the EU External Action Service, the European Council created the “East StratCom Task Force” to address Russia's ongoing disinformation came xplain and expose disinformation narratives, and raise awareness of disinformation coming from Russian State(EEAS, 2018). Like the EU, NATO does not have specialized units or task forces to counter disinformation coming from Russia and China. The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a multi-national constituted organization, is “not part of the NATO Command Structure nor subordinated to any other NATO entity” (NATO Stratcom, 2020). Due to the growing disinformation campaigns in Western Balkans during the coronavirus pandemic sponsored by Russia and China, the US Ambassador to NATO, H.E Kay Bailey Hutchison, announced that NATO will form a ‘counter-hybrid support teams’ in North Macedonia and Montenegro (Hutchison, 2020).
But, what should we do to improve the resilience of our society after fake news? The European Union should seriously consider transforming the East Stratcom Task Force into a permanent structure under the European External Action Services to deal with fake news coming from Russia and China. NATO foreign propaganda and disinformation task forces could be established, not only for North Macedonia and Montenegro, which would monitor the news targeting NATO’s mission and objectives. These task forces should cooperate with the national authorities of the NATO member states and partner countries to share information, best practices, and perform joint activities.
In addition, national teams/task forces could be established to monitor the news on national media outlets, web portals, newspapers, and journals, which seem to be ‘pushed’ by malicious foreign actors. Their task would be (1) identifying and alerting the presence of such news, (2) analyzing and debunking it in a timely and coordinated manner, and (3) cooperation and synchronized response with other regional and international task forces when needed.
Concerning civic society, national authorities should empower the research community to fact-check, conduct independent research on disinformation and implement joint research activities to counter disinformation and fake news. In short, greater cross country cooperation is needed in exposing foreign and domestic networks that spread fake news.
3. Introducing a mandatory media literacy education in both primary and high school.
According to the Statista database, almost 4.57 billion people, or 59% of the global population, are active internet users (Statista, 2020a). Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and WeChat are the top five social media platforms worldwide according to Statista’s latest research on the Most popular social networks worldwide ranked by the number of active users (Statista, 2020b). The US Media Literacy Policy Report 2020 has shown that students who were unable to judge content either “believe in everything that suits their preconceived notions or they cynically disbelieve everything” (Tugend, 2020).
Following the US experience, European countries should introduce mandatory media literacy education in primary and high schools. In order to strengthen the resilience of fake news and propaganda, the younger generations must learn how to critically understand, analyze and evaluate online content and stories to create their own assumption on whether certain information is accurate or disinformation. Therefore, a media literacy curriculum in primary and high schools in all EU and NATO member states is crucial to build up more resilient societies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the unity among Allies, but hybrid threats are likely to increase. The pandemic has also exposed all shortcomings and weaknesses in the crisis management system of certain countries. Thus, there is a need for high cooperation and strengthening capacities. COVID-19 has further reinforced the cohesion within the EU and between NATO Allies. Solidarity is a common denominator for the Euro-Atlantic allies, and dealing with Russian and Chinese influence requires a common approach and a common response. In order to be successful in the future, it is necessary to strengthen capacities to deal with any crises of this type and proportion, with emphasis on the Western Balkans and Baltic countries, the front line of this battle.
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 Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Hungary, Jordan, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romaniа, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uzbekistan, Vietnam.
 European Council, March 2020, EU Enlargement - The Republic of North Macedonia, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/enlargement/republic-north-macedonia/
 For instance, Sputnik Deutschland promotes the claim on Facebook and Twitter that 'washing hands does not help. For more information’s please refer to the following link https://www.rferl.org/a/eu-monitor-russia-china-sow-distrust-in-west-through-coronavirus-disinformation/30523558.html
 EU response to the coronavirus pandemic, 1. https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/news_corner/eu-response-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic_en; 2. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/coronavirus/covid-19-economy/
 Ukraine, Spain, Montenegro, Italy, Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Colombia, Slovenia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Tunisia and Iraq. In addition, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) also requested international assistance through the EADRCC
 As of April 2020, a COVID-19 Task Force was established within SHAPE. Its task is to coordinate current and ‘near term’ fixes and to better prepare for future pandemics and biological threats. However, there are no special units that will operate 24/7, 365 days in a year in all types of crisis situations, not only pandemics.
 Defense Expenditure of NATO Countries (2012-2019) https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2019_06/20190625_PR2019-069-EN.pdf