The crisis around COVID-19 and the resulting "infodemic" has been exploited by authoritarian regimes to spread propaganda and disinformation among populations around the world. The Russian Federation and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have used the pandemic to engage in information warfare, spread divisive content, advance conspiracy theories, and promote public health propaganda that undermines US and European efforts to fight the pandemic.
In 2021, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) published two reports, Information Bedlam: Russian and Chinese Information Operations During COVID-19 and Jabbed in the Back: Mapping Russian and Chinese Information Operations During COVID-19, comparing how the Kremlin and CCP have deployed information operations around the COVID-19 pandemic, virus origins, and efficacy of the vaccines to influence targeted populations globally, using the infodemic as a diplomatic and geopolitical weapon. The CCP mainly spread COVID-19 narratives to shape perceptions about the origins of the coronavirus and often push narratives to shun responsibility. Meanwhile, the Kremlin recycled existing narratives, pushing and amplifying them via validators and unsuspecting people in order to sow internal divisions and further exploit polarized views in the West about the efficacy of vaccines, treatments, origins of new variants, and impact to the population. While the world has learned about new COVID-19 variants, such as Omicron, China and Russia have evolved their tactics to spread COVID-19 disinformation and propaganda and further sow doubt and confuse the population about the pandemic.
As Russia and China's tactics evolve, this policy brief examines whether Western institutions, including governments, digital platforms, and nongovernmental organizations, have been able to counter information warfare around this unprecedented crisis. This paper examines a broad range of initiatives and responses to counter COVID-19 disinformation coming from Russia and China, and to strengthen societal resilience more broadly. Because addressing this challenge requires a whole-of-society approach, this report highlights government, technology, and civil society interventions, both in Europe and in the US, identifying what works and where there are existing gaps.
Of note, the interventions and related assessments presented here are based on currently available data. It is important to highlight that governments regularly pass new regulations and measures, and digital platforms continue to evolve their policy, product, and enforcement actions in response to COVID-19 disinformation.