Among the various crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a crisis of trust in various institutions at the national and international levels.
This crisis was triggered by an unprecedented wave of disinformation and operations of influence from China.
It exposed the vulnerabilities of national and international security systems and cooperation and it is directly related to the hybrid threats that are the focus of our monitoring activities.
Clear and robust crisis management
First of all, COVID-19, as a litmus test, because it highlights the features of the relationship between the state and society in each country. These features were formed by previous experiences in dealing with crises and other situations.
In general, the higher the trust and legitimacy of power in the minds of people, the more disciplined the implementation of recommendations on personal protective equipment has been, such as wearing masks, keeping social distance, etc.
The interaction of the state and society also depends on the clarity of information, the sequence of measures taken, all reflecting the priority of keeping people safe.
It is clear and robust crisis management that helps offset the vulnerabilities of the international system and the uncertainty for the population, caused by the disinformation campaign launched by China and its various proxies.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Baltic countries, countries which have the best indicators and are now to exit the isolation regime, can be mentioned as such “exemplary” countries.
In countries where the level of trust in the state is low and there are negative past experiences with the state, for example in Belarus and Russia, the situation differs radically. This is palpable from the number of infections and the behaviour of the population.
Moreover, when there is no objective information and clear instructions on civilian behaviour, and an insufficient level of education, then people cannot independently and effectively take personal protection measures.
In Russia, a number of crises – from Chernobyl to a variety of military and technical disasters that occur regularly – have taught people not to believe official statistics. Additionally, all crises have demonstrated that the state does not treat people as citizens, but as objects for managing, subordinating and turning a profit.
In addition, a number of draconian measures without fair social support during the COVID-19 have further aggravated the situation, and according to all studies, the level of trust in the regime is now at its lowest.
Great disinformation and the new Middle Ages
The strength and scale of the crisis in each individual state are determined by the competence and speed of decisions, as well as their own reactions to the crisis.
In our view, only Germany has passed this stress test so far due to the effectiveness of the country’s crisis management, the reasonableness and sufficiency of the measures introduced, a strong healthcare system and the high trust of citizens who complied with the state’s instructions in a rather disciplined manner.
In general, all national states will either have to strengthen or restore public trust in the actions of the state in crisis situations, adjust or change the way they interact with citizens, and work very seriously with the situation of minimal public education on actions in situations of pandemics and other crises.
They will also have to protect their information systems, institutions, and media from disinformation and manipulation. In this situation, insufficient, incomplete, or false information is no longer a matter of politics or economics, but a matter of survival.
By the possession of information, we mean both the actual information about the pandemic and the virus, as well as the ability to analyze, critically perceive, verify and draw correct conclusions. This applies to ordinary members of society, as well as to decision-makers – whether they are elected politicians or appointed officials.
In a situation of making global decisions that are vital for security, in addition to political and economic considerations, the level of education and understanding of the situation and the degree of possession of information about the situation also play a role.
The crisis of COVID-19 highlighted especially the “new Middle Ages” that social philosophers and anthropologists actively wrote about during the second half of the twentieth century (Umberto Eco, for example).
The pandemic, including the disinformation campaign and the concealment of facts, dealt a blow to the global system of security and cooperation, transferring the severity of decision-making and actions to national governments, as well as to each citizen individually.
And then it turned out that in a situation where media, state, and scientific channels of information were attacked and operations of influence from China, only a negligible percentage of the population and decision-makers were competent enough to compensate for this manipulation with their own knowledge and judgement.
Of course, Donald Trump’s proposal to use detergent or irradiate the body with ultraviolet light was an extreme example of ignorance and a lack of education.
An absolutely catastrophic effect
Perhaps this is a consequence s of introducing to society the concept of delegating the right to judge and influence decision-making and management to experts, which emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
As a result, vital knowledge about the world turned out to be unnecessary for everyday life and work. Including, as a result, as a result, heresies characteristic of the “new Middle Ages” – conspiracy theories — appear again.
Against this background, the campaign to manipulate and conceal information using political and economic influence, launched by China, had an absolutely catastrophic effect.
About a month after the start of the epidemic, which they tried to hide, the world calmly watched footage from Wuhan, where people in protective suits worked on the streets, and drones made sure that everyone went out into the street only in masks, but aircraft continued to carry tourists from China to all parts of the world.
It seems that the decision-makers, amid insufficient information and unwillingness to quarrel with China for economic reasons, chose to believe the precautionary measures taken inside the Middle Kingdom were sufficient, while citizens were held hostage by incompetent decisions and disinformation flows.
Everyone who doubted the honesty and good faith of the Chinese authorities in managing the crisis and those who doubted the “natural market” origin of the virus were blamed as racists or sinophobes. They were accused of following conspiracy theories and seeking economic and political benefits from the attack on China.
By the time China began to emerge from the pandemic and the rest of the world began to plunge into it, the indicative humanitarian aid to other countries looked especially impressive – a country that quickly defeated the enemy helps the rest of the world.
Questions such as how and why this rest of the world turned out to be infected, were perceived to be politically incorrect.
The only ones who could stop this stream of the disorienting disinformation for society were scientists working in the field of epidemiology and virology. And this is also one of the signs of the “new Middle Ages” – an appeal to authorities and the uncritical adherence to their opinion.
The current global academic system is too dependent on political and economic influence. In the face of insufficient information and material, natural time constraints and reputation risks, at least at the initial stage of the epidemic, it was quite easy for China to organize pressure on international scientists to blur the danger and especially to avert suspicion about a virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan.
From our point of view, the damage to the credibility of academic science as a result of this operation of influence has yet to be assessed, but it is already obvious that this damage provided the basis for the growth of various conspiracy theories, attacks on scientific objectivity and, ultimately, the ground for further manipulation by interested actors.
Global system hacking and restoring order
The magnitude of the influence operation to conceal the origin and extent of the initial distribution remains to be estimated, however, it is already becoming clear that the global information, security and cooperation system has been successfully hacked, and it will need to be restored and seriously reformed to protect against influence operations.
Investigations have shown that the initial assumptions that China will not succeed in spinning its COVID-19 narratives turned out to be too optimistic.
To promote its own narratives, China used the activity of its embassies in different countries, bot farms on Twitter, its own global media, censorship in social media – in short, the entire set of tools used in such operations.
At the same time, the narratives had several directions – the control of the situation inside China, noble humanitarian aid to the affected countries, the “natural market” origin of the virus “proven by scientists”, a narrative about the economic and political competition of the USA with China, American conspiracy theories and so on.
It should be noted that all these narratives were amplified by the Russian national and international propaganda network, meaning that China had an experienced ally in this information war.
We can only guess about the degree of penetration of disinformation and agents of influence by the appearance of materials of varying degrees of strangeness, including how to write correctly about COVID-19, without violating the rules of political correctness (in this situation, shifting the focus from the responsibility of the PRC government for the spread of the virus in the world).
Particularly noteworthy is the censorship situation on Facebook of stories and reports related to COVID-19. It turned out that Facebook fact-checkers consulted with a leading expert on the problem, Daniel Anderson, who, however, had a conflict of interest – she has long and closely collaborated with Shi Zhengli, the head of the laboratory in Wuhan.
It was Anderson who told Facebook’s fact-checkers that “it is impossible to assume that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan.” At the same time, in December, the laboratory itself in Wuhan hastily cleared the database of experiments with SARS-CoV-2.
It is noteworthy that despite the fact that China seems to have agreed to cooperate with the international investigation on the origin of coronavirus, no invitation has yet been invited by WHO experts to China to work on the ground. China has agreed to a general investigation provided that the pandemic is tackled first.
In general, Chinese officials consider the international investigation “politically motivated” and distracting from the fight against the pandemic.
In a pandemic situation, the reputation of WHO, as the main international health institution, was under attack. Now, some countries and the media are already openly accusing WHO of concealing or downplaying the scale of the covert crisis, and of the late declaration of a pandemic, which has resulted in a belated reaction from many states that are guided by WHO data and recommendations.
The most scandalous (or rather, filed as scandalous) was the decision of the US Administration to freeze WHO funding during the investigation of the organization’s actions in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese and Russian media, with the help of other allies, did everything to discredit this investigation, as well as the investigation of the origin of the virus.
We do not want to draw conclusions about what actually influenced the work of WHO until the end of the investigation, however, based on our work experience and knowledge of how the functioning of such international organizations works, we can say that China had many opportunities and channels for impact on the work of this organization, including on the topic COVID-19. More evidence of China’s influence scope is yet to come, but here is a good outline of what had been happening during the crisis and here is an account on how the recent head of the WHO was supported by China to be elected.
Pressure on EU diplomats
A clearer idea about the methods of influence used by China is seen in a scandal that erupted in the EU at the end of April. A number of media outlets reported that the European Commission was forced, under pressure from the Middle Kingdom, to soften the report on the disinformation campaign related to COVID-19.
Allegedly, China put pressure on diplomats residing in the country: they were reminded that China is the EU’s most important trading partner.
The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell,at first argued that the document did not change, despite Chinese pressure. Then the head of the Stratcom Committee for External Relations said that there were two versions of the document – for internal and external use – and part of the text was changed.
For us, even the above situations are enough to understand how compromised and vulnerable the international and, often depending on it, national decision-making system during crises has turned out to be.
The whole story of the operations of influence of China, like Russia, is far from new. The work of these countries varies in style and goals, but it is similar in that there is an established system for transmitting disinformation, manipulation and pressure to obtain the desired result.
Unfortunately, the reaction to these operations is very late, because each separately they do not seem to amount to be a very big threat to strong countries.
The problem is that this system of external influence destroys all structures of situation management. On the event of a crisis, such weakness is fatal. That is why the countries participating in the international treaty framework will have to review and strengthen their system of protection against external influences.
For the national and regional levels, it becomes obvious that in the event of a crisis, the responsibility for quick decisions and actions rests with them. And the effectiveness of the measures taken largely depends not only on how competent the decision-makers themselves and relevant institutions are but also on the competence of the whole society, on the ability to build interaction with this society based on trust and equal cooperation.
Of course, several levels of protection against disinformation and manipulation should be present at the national level: the state and its institutions, the media, society, all of these should be sufficiently competent to handle information, especially during crises.
And without exception, at all of these levels – international, national, and in the scientific world – a lot of work will be needed to restore public trust.
This article is also available on Visegrad Insight. A Russian version of this article was published on Reform.by and was translated into English with the support of iSANS.
Материал доступен на русском языке: COVID-19: глобальный кризис доверия и дезинформации