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May 25, 2022



The disinformation war in 2021: Main targets were Ukraine, COVID-19, and who is responsible for refugees

24.1.2022 7:16
Refugees at the Belarusian-Polish border - November 2021. (PHOTO:  Facebook - Eliza Kowalczyk)
Refugees at the Belarusian-Polish border - November 2021. (PHOTO: Facebook - Eliza Kowalczyk)

The communications team of the European Union, EU StratCom, has published a database of the more than 2 700 cases of disinformation that they captured and described during last year. Of those cases, 947 were either concerned with the Czech Republic directly or were disseminated by Czech disinformation websites.

Examples of this disinformation were pieces alleging that "Germany and NATO are planning to annex the Kaliningrad area". Other such disinformation claimed that the fatal 2014 explosions at a munitions warehouse in Vrbětice, which Czech authorities have reported involved Russian intelligence, were "actually" part of a long-planned Czech disinformation campaign against Russia. 

Abandoned and betrayed by partners

In terms of the disinformation war being waged by Russia, Ukraine-related subject matter clearly predominated in 2021 - roughly one-third of the disinformation that EU StratCom managed to accumulate and describe that was pro-Kremlin was also about Ukraine. Along with the escalation of tensions on the border between Russia and Ukraine, the number of pieces portraying Ukraine as the aggressor grew, including accusations of alleged genocide commmitted in Donbas against Russian-speaking residents, or accusations that NATO and the United States are attempting to push Ukraine into a war against Russia. 

However, contradictory disinformation also emerged implying that in reality, Ukraine is being abandoned and betrayed by its partners, or that it is breaching international treaties. "Such messages, tailored to a specific audience and disseminated in many languages, help the Kremlin to achieve specific goals," summarizes EU StratCom, the job of which it is to discover and describe disinformation and propaganda targeting audiences in the EU.

"Domestically, these messages shape an image of Ukraine as an enemy and mobilize Russian support for the Kremlin's foreign policy. They destabilize and divide society inside Ukraine as well. Internationally, the Kremlin legitimizes its steps through such content," EU StratCom reports. 

The summary for 2021 also looks back on what has been happening in Belarus, where a brutal campaign against civil society and the independent media has continued systematically - according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, during 2021 more than 260 journalists were arrested, charged and detained. Currently there are 31 journalists behind bars in Belarus, where the number of all political prisoners is approaching 1 000

In addition to the destruction of the independent media, a common Lukashenko practice is to call openly for violence against activists in the opposition, and the alleged "confessions" of the political prisoners are published as paid advertising on YouTube. Belarus's media outlets that are state-controlled (most of them) and the country's "experts" on media (some of them), along with media outlets from Russia, have willingly taken part in the disinformation war associated with the artificial crisis of migrants on the Belarusian-Polish border. 

Such experts and outlets allege that Belarus is being subjected to a destabilization effort and constantly designate the European Union as the cause of the crisis. COVID-19 and efforts to intensify and support scepticism about vaccines produced in the West also continues to be an important subject of this disinformation.

The convergence of China and Russia

The continuing convergence of Chinese and Russian propaganda was an interesting trend of 2021. During 2020, this convergence involved conspiracy theories about COVID-19 having escaped from laboratories that are being kept secret, but during 2021 the Chinese version of events in Xinjiang began to be disseminated by the Kremlin, alleging that the human rights of the Uighurs are not being violated.

Afghanistan's crisis became a focus of both Chinese and Russian state-controlled media, portraying the United States as an unreliable partner and further reflecting that assertion in messaging on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues, such as relations with Ukraine and with Taiwan. According to EU StratCom, it is apparent that both the Chinese and pro-Kremlin players in the disinformation field are learning from each other.

The East StratCom Task Force team has existed since 2015. From the beginning the former journalist Jakub Kalenský was working there for the Czech Republic. 

In 2018, Kalenský left the team at his own request (he continues to cover the subject of the fight against Russian disinformation and propaganda at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center think-tank) and Jan Látal is now the Czech Republic's representative there. The East StratCom Task Force team is comparatively small, employing 16 experts in communications and the Russian language.

The "Disinformation Review" is the team's main output, reporting on a regular weekly basis that gives an overview of articles that especially feature disinformation that is pro-Kremlin. Another association that is informal and calls itself the "Czech Elves" (Čeští elfové) also concentrates on detecting misinformation in Czech-language cyberspace and mapping traffic on Czech websites.

First published in Czech for the Institute of Independent Journalism (Ústav nezávislé žurnalistiky).

Robert Břešťan, Hlídací pes, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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