BRUSSELS (AP) — Russian state media and news outlets supporting President Vladimir Putin are waging a fake news campaign aimed at undermining public confidence in the ability of European health care systems to cope with the coronavirus, according to a European Union analysis.
The report, seen by The Associated Press, said that EU experts noted nearly 80 instances of virus-related disinformation in about the last two months, including claims that the COVID-19 virus was a Western-made biological weapon.
“The campaign is designed to exacerbate confusion, panic, and fear, and to prevent people from accessing reliable information about the virus and public safety provisions,” states the report, which was compiled by the EU communications division assigned to countering false information.
The EU experts pointed the finger at Russian news outlets Russia Today, Sputnik, Oriental Review, Geopolitica and others. As examples of false reports, they cited stories saying COVID-19 was less harmful than the flu, developed by the United States, brought into Europe by migrants or exacerbated by taking ibuprofen to relieve symptoms.
Internet searches about the new virus are booming, with four times as many made in March as there were at the end of January, and twice as many now as at the end of last month, the report said. Social media and digital monitors estimate that COVID-19 was mentioned 115 million times between Jan. 1 and March 12.
The report, by the EU’s Strategic Communications division , said that RT Spanish is the 12th most popular source of coronavirus-related content across many languages, including English, Spanish, Russia, Italian and Arabic, beating out even major international news outlets.
Messages in Spanish were aimed at people in Europe and Latin America to “advance apocalyptic stories, blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasize how well Russia and Putin are dealing with the outbreak,” the report states.
Russia has confirmed a total of 199 virus cases. However, many health experts predict the number to much higher, with infections going undetected since testing for the new virus is not widespread.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Wednesday rejected as groundless any suggestion that the Kremlin was peddling fake news about the worldwide pandemic, adding that this “Russo-phobic obsession should have died down by now, but apparently it hasn’t.”
Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report
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