Coronavirus disinformation spread by Russian and Chinese journalists is finding a bigger audience on social media than content created by premier news outlets around the world, according to new research.
Whether it is distorted coverage or outright conspiracy theories, articles written in French and German by foreign state media are resonating widely on Facebook and Twitter, often with their origins unclear, the Oxford Internet Institute said in a report published Monday (June 29).
The institute, which is part of Oxford University, looked at content generated by leading media outlets from Russia and China, as well as from Iran and Turkey -- all of which are state-controlled or closely aligned to regimes in power.
In their French and German, as well as Spanish, output, state media groups have "politicised the coronavirus by criticising Western democracies, praising their home countries, and promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus", the institute said.
"A majority of the content in these outlets is factually based. But what they have, especially if you look at the Russian outlets, is an agenda to discredit democratic countries," Oxford researcher Jonathan Bright told AFP.
"The subtle weave in the overarching narrative is that democracy is on the verge of collapse," he added.
The institute looked at output from Russia's RT broadcaster and Sputnik news agency, China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI) and Xinhua News Agency, in addition to foreign-language output from Iranian and Turkish networks.
Promoting anti-US sentiments
It measured median engagement per shared article -- how many times a user actively shares or likes an article on Facebook, or comments about it and retweets it on Twitter.
The study covered each outlet's 20 most popular stories from May 18 to June 5.
The institute's previous study in April found that in English, heavily politicised news stories from the same state media groups could achieve as much as 10 times the level of user engagement as did more sober sources such as the BBC.
"A significant portion of social media is people consuming content that is directly funded by foreign governments, and it's not very clear to the reader that that's the case," Bright added.
Similar engagement levels showed in Spanish-language content, including from the Iranian state broadcaster's service HispanTV, which the report said shares the Russian outlets' promotion of "anti-US sentiments" for audiences in Latin America.
Examples in French and German included heated coverage from the Russian outlets of the "gilets jaunes" protest movement in France, and the COVID-19 and ensuing economic crises in Europe.
The report also examined content in German, French and Spanish from Turkey's TRT network, which it said focused more on positive portrayals of the Turkish government's actions against the pandemic.
In contrast, it said that Russian, Chinese and Iranian media all promoted baseless theories, including that the US military unleashed the coronavirus, which originated late last year in Wuhan, China.
The media organisations in question claim to offer a non-Western perspective on news and deny they are propagandists.
In a statement responding to the Oxford report, RT France said it "vigorously contests these allegations" and insisted that it had covered the global pandemic on the same lines as other French media.
"That has nothing to do with the accusation of criticising 'Western democracies' or of 'discrediting democratic countries,'" it said.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron accused RT of spreading "deceitful propaganda" during the 2017 presidential election.
In Britain, the Russian network has been fined for breaking rules on media impartiality.
Last week, Beijing threatened to retaliate after four more of its media groups were reclassified as "foreign missions" in the United States.
The quartet joined CGTN, CRI and Xinhua, which Washington already had designated as state-sponsored actors rather than as media.
The Chinese and Russian regimes have been stepping up co-operation to spread false narratives over the coronavirus pandemic, with Beijing increasingly adopting techniques honed by Moscow, observers noted in May.
Twitter on June 12 said it had deleted more than 170,000 accounts linked to Chinese government disinformation campaigns, and the European Union (EU) on June 9 formally accused China and Russia's regimes of mounting targeted coronavirus disinformation campaigns to undermine European democracy.
Askat Dukenbayev, a political scientist from Bishkek, considers the Russian disinformation campaigns part of the new "hybrid war" doctrine of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime against Western countries.
Moscow is "trying to take revenge for its defeat in the Cold War, as well as against post-Soviet countries that are trying to come out from under the influence of the former metropole [colonial power]", he said in June.
"The Russian-speaking countries of Central Asia have been regularly subjected to barrages of disinformation from Russia practically since their declaration of independence from the Soviet Union but especially after the start of Putinist aggression against Ukraine in 2014," said Dukenbayev.
"For example, pro-liberal and pro-democratic civil society activists in Kyrgyzstan are constantly subjected to attacks for supposedly being 'foreign agents' and 'elements hostile to the country' on websites and the pages of pro-Kremlin and pro-government newspapers that are widely circulated in Kyrgyzstan," he said.
He is pleased "that recognition of the extent of the Russian threat and of the need for countermeasures has finally reached the Western and international community", he said.
"Russian bloggers actively push the narrative 'Russia, a fraternal country, extends help at a difficult time; the West does not,'" said Ruslan Nazarov, a scholar of international affairs from Nur-Sultan, in June.
"However, in day-to-day relationships -- political, economic and especially within the [Russian-dominated] Eurasian Economic Union -- Russia has repeatedly shown the opposite. In foreign policy, including toward Central Asia, Moscow pursues thoroughly avaricious interests and acts accordingly," he said.