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EU: Russia trying to sow 'panic' with coronavirus disinformation

CNN logo CNN 2020-03-18 By James Frater, Mary Ilyushina and Hadas Gold, CNN
a group of people walking in front of a building: A man wearing a protective facemask walks on Red Square in downtown Moscow on February 19, 2020. © YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images A man wearing a protective facemask walks on Red Square in downtown Moscow on February 19, 2020.

Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets are waging a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus pandemic to sow "panic and fear" in the West, EU officials have warned in a report seen by CNN.

The European Union's External Action Service, which researches and combats disinformation online, said in an internal report that since January 22 it had recorded nearly 80 cases of disinformation about the Covid-19 outbreak linked to pro-Kremlin media.

"The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems — thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak," according to the report.

The report, dated March 16th, said that the campaign is "designed to exacerbate confusion, panic, and fear." The report outlines how pro-Kremlin media have been working to amplify an array of often contradictory narratives which "hijack" the information space in order to diminish Europe's ability to act in its self-interest.

When asked to comment on the allegations in a call with reporters Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia is undertaking such an effort and called the accusations "unfounded" and a "Russophobic obsession."

"If this document contained at least one concrete example, and a link to some specific media, I could say something specific," Peskov said. "This kind of Russophobic obsession should somehow be going away given the current situation, ideally, but apparently it isn't," he added.

The EU report states that pro-Kremlin media are not authoring most of the misinformation themselves, instead "they are simply amplifying theories that originate elsewhere."

It adds that Russian state media network RT Spanish is the 12th most popular source across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit when it comes to the coronavirus.

Much of the disinformation pushed by the pro-Kremlin media claim the virus was created by humans and "weaponized" by Western countries, the report states. The disinformation has targeted international audiences in English, Italian, Spanish, Arabic as well as Russian and other languages, the report states.

European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the center has seen a "flurry" of disinformation about the spread of novel coronavirus over the past weeks.

"The EEAS Stratcom had intensified the monitoring of the information flows and its sources and publicly identifies, exposes and raises awareness about coronavirus-related disinformation spread by Russian sources," Stano told CNN Business.

An explosive US State Department report from last month said thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter were spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. But Facebook and Twitter said the State Department has not provided evidence that would allow the companies to investigate and possibly shut down the accounts.

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