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Disinformation about COVID-19 in Czech first spread from Russian server, according to new analysis

3.4.2020 11:42
A representation of the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 disease worldwide in 2020. (PHOTO:
A representation of the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 disease worldwide in 2020. (PHOTO:

The first disinformation about the novel coronavirus appeared online on 20 January 2020, when a server administered by the Russian Defense Ministry accused the United States of having developed COVID-19 as a biological weapon, according to findings published by the Semantic Visions company, which performs semantic analysis of online information. An association called Nelež ("Don't Lie"), which aims to limit the dissemination of disinformation in the Czech Republic, has reported that Russia is exploiting the situation around the pandemic to spread disinformation about the virus with the aim of damaging people's faith in democratic institutions and in each other.

In the Czech Republic, disinformation about COVID-19 is also being studied by the Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats at the Interior Ministry, which has long investigated the issue of fake news. The center is cooperating with the Health Ministry in that regard, according to Jiří Korbel of the Interior Ministry's press department.

"The Health Ministry assesses information and, in case of need, publishes it on its website in a section on facts and myths," Korbel said. Disinformation about COVID-19 is also meant to be investigated by the cabinet's COVID-19 Central Management Team, which Deputy Health Minister Roman Prymula was appointed to lead on Monday.

The team of 30 is tasked with producing analyses of developments, assessing measures adopted, preparing media outputs, analyzing the media, following the mood of the population, and monitoring disinformation campaigns and messages. According to Semantic Visions, shortly after the Russian disinformation was released, allegations appeared on servers in the US that the virus had leaked from a government laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the infection began.

"The narrative that the virus is an artificial, biological weapon created by the American government for use against China was later taken up and spread by Chinese Government propaganda," the analysis reports. China, according to Semantic Vision, then exploited such allegations to deflect public attention away from the Government at the beginning of the crisis.

The analysis says Czech disinformation websites began to carry allegations about either the American or Chinese government origins of the virus during the first week in February. Czech servers began to cite the same "experts" whose names had been reported by websites in America and Russia.

In addition to allegations that the virus is either an American weapon or the product of a Chinese laboratory, another version of the story is appearing in the Czech Republic and being copied by servers with an anti-American, anti-EU, pro-Russian focus. Exactly because of those allegations, the version of this disinformation about an American origin for the virus has predominated in the Czech environment.

"Disinformation websites have also accused the Czech public broadcasting media of intentionally exaggerating the threat posed by the virus, alleging that this exaggeration is undertaken either to attack China or to deflect attention away from a new migration crisis on the horizon," the analysis reports. In March, pieces began appearing in the Czech language that described China as a country that is allegedly saving various countries in Europe by means of its humanitarian activities.

Semantic Visions, run by František Vrabel, has developed a system to analyze information from freely-accessible sources on the Internet. The system constantly reviews the contents of the web and searches for new sources in the form of news articles or blogs.

The system then subjects those sources to detailed semantic analysis, the aim of which is to automatically comprehend the articles' contents. The analysis is one source that the Nelež association uses to create its list of disinformation websites in the Czech Republic.

In February, Nelež urged companies not to buy advertising with those servers. Nelež is offering the free service of making sure companies' advertisements do not appear on websites that manipulate facts.

ČTK, fk, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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