Corina Rebegea, director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis think-tank, claims a disinformation campaign supported by Russian-state media has played down the risks of COVID-19 to the public and contributed to a surge in infections and fatalities in Russia and other countries. The leading foreign policy expert has taken aim at Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik and anti-vaccination groups for promoting conspiracy theories online during the global health crisis.
Ms Rebegea said: “Those who construct these disinformation campaigns are state actors as well as a multitude of local ones.
“Messages that minimise the effects of the coronavirus are taken up by mainstream politicians and commentators.
“It seems to be very dangerous in Romania, because we are seeing a model that is characteristic of the Balkans, where the penetration of Russian propaganda is deeper.”
Romania has seen a huge upturn in infections with 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed each day since July 22.
Some of the highest rates in Europe have emerged in several former Soviet Union states, with 40 new weekly cases per 100,000 people recorded in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
Nicolae Țîbrigan, an analyst at the Laboratory for the Analysis of Informational Warfare and Strategic Communication, has highlighted the huge effect disinformation campaigns has had on people.
He cited a study conducted in April during the height of the pandemic across Europe, which found 41 percent of Romanians believed COVID-19 was a US-made biological weapon – a claim completely unfounded.
He added: “Polls suggest the people who are predisposed to believe these conspiracy theories are also at higher risk of getting sick with COVID-19.
“Unfortunately the negligence of this category of people who are credulous toward internet lies is putting their own lives and the lives of those around them in danger.”
Raed Arafat, the head of the Romanian Government’s Department for Emergency Situations, has said local lockdowns and the mandatory use of masks in public have been used to try and combat the virus.
Romania’s top civil servant claims the Government message has been blurred by unofficial online articles and social media posts by groups urging people to ignore the guidance.
He also argues so-called medical experts have been given a platform to spread “opinions that lacked scientific basis”.
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“From here we of course end up with a wider virus spread through the community because the rules are not followed.”
A spokesman for Sputnik said: “In some articles on our websites we quote experts, speakers and their opinions.
“We also find that editorialising those opinions or branding those that do not correlate with the mainstream as ‘disinformation’ is a form of censorship which we find inadmissible.”