CEPA–IMR joint event: COVID-19 and information warfare

Left to right: Olga Khvostunova, Dalia Bankauskaitė, James Lamond, Vera Michlin-Shapir, and Ben Dubow.

COVID-19’s role in the use of information warfare

Vera Michlin-Shapir, who co-authored, with Olga Khvostunova, the IMR report on Sputnik V disinformation, introduced a Russian interpretation of the term “информационная война/противоборство” (information war/fare), describing it as a state-backed effort aimed at psychological and emotional influence of the target audiences, bothinternational and domestic. Information warfare is complex, and information is not a straightforward weapon: unlike the push of a button that launches a missile, the impact of information employed as a weapon is hard to measure.

How disinformation is fueled by foreign actors and how they cooperate

Ben Dubow, one of the co-authors of CEPA’s report “Jabbed in the Back: Mapping Russian and Chinese Information Operations During COVID-19,” pointed out that the recent radical change in misinformation during the pandemic is shaped by two key factors: 1) the world became more filtered through social media; and 2) people communicate much less in person. Countries that seek influence, like China and Russia, approached this situation differently. Beijing tried to control its narratives but achieved limited results. In the early months of the pandemic, China managed to hide information about the origins of COVID-19, but as reporting on the Wuhan laboratory leak became widely known, opinion polls now show a significant reduction of public trust in China. Moscow’s information activity in the pandemic appeared to be more focused on sowing chaos, rather than pursuing specific goals or achieving anything constructive. Much of its propaganda in the West aimed at tearing down Western institutions and vaccines.

Pushing Sputnik V internationally

According to Olga Khvostunova, one of the interesting findings of the IMR report was that Russia tried immensely hard to push Sputnik V into international markets. She named two reasons for this effort: geopolitical influence and money. In terms of geopolitics, the Kremlin likely takes cues from the Soviet regime’s playbook, in which “humanitarian aid” to developing countries was often used as a “peaceful” Trojan horse. In terms of money, the Putin regime’s kleptocratic nature binds it to exploit the lucrative opportunities of the growing vaccine market, but, despite the proclamations of Sputnik V’s sponsors that its portfolio covers half of the world’s population, success has been limited at best. Khvostunova contrasted the regime’s powerful drive into the international markets with its disastrous domestic vaccination campaign, poorly coordinated response, and confused messaging, all of which clearly highlights the Kremlin’s real goals of pursuing self-interest at the cost of public healthcare.

What can the West do?

According to Ben Dubow, the West’s approach tends to be too narrow, focusing on stamping out bad ideas, but it is impossible to stamp them all out, especially in an information environment that always promotes outrage. Another problem is that social media companies only address bad narratives, rather than the reason why they spread in the first place. These issues need to be tackled properly.

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Institute of Modern Russia

Institute of Modern Russia

The Institute of Modern Russia (IMR) is a nonpartisan US-based think-tank focused on policy analysis, research, and human rights.