Propaganda in Time of Plague – In Between Reptilians and the Lifting of Sanctions

Propaganda in Time of Plague – In Between Reptilians and the Lifting of Sanctions

A short guide to Kremlin narratives in the coronavirus (COVID-19) era

Unsplash
31.03.2020 Olga Kevere

iSANS conducted a blitz-monitoring of narratives disseminated by Russian media for internal and foreign (European) use, pro-Russian sites in Belarus, as well as information that circulates in social networks, especially in groups related to pro-Russian activities.

The narratives we have highlighted are in many ways the same as those that were noted in the European External Action Service (EEAS) review, which already caused outrage in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

For us, the interesting subjects are not only narratives themselves, but also the affiliation of the media that distribute them, and, in fact, what effect they should ultimately have.

It seems that the current campaign with active information measures has a very tangible outcome when talking about activity internationally.

In reviewing Russian media we looked at:

  • Russian media that are open parts of the state system (TASS, RIA, Sputnik and other projects of Rossiya Segodnya);
  • “Patriots” – Yevgeny Prigozhin’s patriotic media holding and resources associated with Konstantin Malofeev;
  • Resources linked in some way to the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation – from direct affiliation to management by people close to the Administration;
  • The media hub working for the Baltic region;
  • Left- and right-wing resources are known for their connection with the power vertical.

All “media” mentioned above quite consistently broadcast a general set of narratives, though they take into account the particularities of their primary audiences – domestic Russian, Russian-speaking in the former Soviet space, and European.

(We purposely do not provide links to these resources in order to not promote them further, however, may provide the full “set” of information on request.)

Certainly, the first, conspicuous narrative is a “reptilians” conspiracy theory – viewing the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as something engineered by humans. Moreover, this theory changes over time from statements about the deliberate use of biological weapons against China (Russia, Iran – choose the correct one) to stories about the “escape” of the virus from a military laboratory in the U.S., and brought to China by the NATO military. The narrative has changed with the virus’s spread beyond China and confirms the theses of China and Iran representatives on the “American” origin of the virus.

Generally, this theory could simply be ridiculed, as this kind of reading has its own stable audience.

However, it is exactly this narrative that is being followed by stories about the danger of cooperation with the United States in the field of bioprospecting. The narrative refers to the list of labs in countries of the former Soviet Union that should be immediately closed, especially in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. It is hardly necessary to explain in detail that these countries try to conduct a policy independent of the Kremlin and build relations with the West, and, in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, with NATO. Thus, Kremlin propaganda tries to strike the consciousness of these countries’ populations, with the blow directed against cooperation with the transatlantic community.

The second function of the “reptilians” narrative is to serve as a smokescreen – a distracting maneuver in the information field that draws attention from real, true goals and forces the rest of the propaganda plan to be perceived simply as information flow.

The primary shock then is an attack on the democratic world, in particular on the EU and NATO as a failed project.

Here you can distinguish several narratives that form a branching tree, the thinner branches of which are directed at particular audiences. Moreover, this part does not often use direct lies, but, as is true in a hybrid war, the existing problems are exploited and singled out to create a picture of chaos and apocalypse.

The generalized West lost the war with the coronavirus because it is fundamentally disorganized and the culprits here are Russophobia, neoliberalism, and globalization.

Key related narratives include the following:

1. The EU is falling apart under the pressure of the crisis and de facto it does not exist

This thesis is tailored to conditionally internal audiences for the Russian-language space of the former Soviet Union, and for those “served” by Sputnik in English and national languages.

For Russian-speaking audiences, it is emphasized that the EU has turned from the “Promised Land” to the “Plague Hospital”.

Associated narratives are:

  • there is no European domestic solidarity – each person has to cope on their own;
  • chaos is reigning inside the European Union and European cities are turning into ghost cities; and
  • some EU countries have just fallen apart due to border closure issues and quarantines.

A visual row and the row of headlines on the websites of these “information” resources are also combined in a way to strengthen a feeling of the apocalypse.

Of course, this narrative comes with a conspiracy theory – the government makes people buy masks and fines for violation of quarantine rules in order to profit from the crisis while Eurocrats slash budgets.

2. An economic crisis is looming where not everyone will survive

This view is also put to all audiences – both for the domestic Russian, in order to reduce the attractiveness of Europe and the European system, and for the Russian-speaking audience of the former Soviet Union with the same purpose. A message that the situation is hopeless and cannot be solved by European allies on their own is directed to the more Western European audience.

Specifically, countries within the EU – in particular the Baltic States – will not survive the crisis. Poland will survive but with hardships, with a steep drop in living standards. But Germany’s economic future also looks highly uncertain. (This last idea is carefully conveyed to all audiences, especially European: See, this pillar is ready to collapse. What will happen to you?).

There is no chance Ukraine will survive the crisis, as some propaganda ploys affirm. We will consider these in detail below.

All these countries should think immediately about the price of Russophobia.

Brussels already misallocates funds to deal with the economic consequences of the crisis, the narrative continues. More importantly, it does not help most Italy – the country most affected.

Of course, evidence from “eyewitnesses” and “experts” is used, who describe a sad present and even sadder future.

In summary, there is no sense in waiting for help that will not arrive with crisis, chaos, and doom coming where everyone will die in the end.

3. The U.S. is in crisis and has betrayed everyone

There will be no help from across the ocean because the U.S. is in crisis and is ready to betray its allies at any moment. This view is also broadcast to the three audiences mentioned above.

One of the most notable, of course, is the story that Trump benefits from the coronavirus, which will help defeat China in a trade war and result in the presidential election being canceled. In the U.S. itself, horror and chaos are reigning, with retirement homes turning into mass graves and crowds of infected people who were released from hospitals due to a lack of space roaming the streets. A virtual zombie apocalypse.

However, devious Trump does not pass up the opportunity to warm his hands on the crisis and buy a vaccine from German companies to sell to Europe to the highest bidder.

Here, the theory about the American “breakdown” of NATO exercises in Europe and about NATO soldiers as the source of the coronavirus falters. In connection with this, the local European population submits petitions about the ban of exercises. At the same time, “it became absolutely obvious” that there is no one left who would protect the independence of the Baltic states, since Americans “disrupted” the exercises, and NATO NATO generally is not focused now on the Baltic states. The Baltic people and governments should now think again about their own Russophobia.

4. Russia (and China) will save everybody. A new order must be established and sanctions must be lifted

Having been told of the harm of liberalism and Russophobia it should be understood that a path to salvation exists. Russia is ready to save everyone, however the EU disagrees and Ukraine is against!

The fact that Russia is ready to help everyone in the crisis, but there is no consensus within the EU, is a literal headline from Sputnik’s Serbia service. This material, of course, is about the need to lift sanctions from Russia during the crisis, in order to resume economic cooperation and boost the EU economy. The Kremlin-backed marginal right-wing AfD Party launched this thought in the German Bundestag and since then it has been spread by all Russian media and social media sources much faster than even the coronavirus.

But there is another alternative to this idea of lifting sanctions. Iran suffers from the COVID-19 virus because of U.S. sanctions, so any sanctions that are imposed without the UN Security Council must be lifted. This should be promoted by BRICS countries.

Since this story with the narrative about the lifting of sanctions is only just unfolding (and that is why it was not recorded in the report of the European External Action Service, EEAS), there are clearly many versions as to the means and reasons why sanctions should be lifted from Russia, whether for the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass, or related to the Magnitsky List. But in any case, the

lifting of sanctions is a concrete result that the Kremlin
will pursue in the wake of the crisis associated with the coronavirus.

Next, of course, are the usual fantasies that follow with a view to shifting geopolitical relationships. The main thoughts include the following:

  • Since the collective West lost the war to the coronavirus a new world order is needed after the crisis (otherwise it will be set up on its own). The Russian (and Chinese) systems are more successful than democratic ones (see thoughts on the new world order). Other countries must cooperate and negotiate with them. At the same time, Maduro is also doing a good job by taking heroic measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Venezuela.

And here is the most important message from the point of view of Russian propaganda offered to all audiences:

In Russia, everything (foremost, the coronavirus and economy) is under control. Putin works every day. He is not a tsar, but only cares about the fate of Russia and the world and can in no way leave the captain’s bridge in such a time of crisis.

Honestly, we do not judge where such confidence comes from, that in Russia the coronavirus will fail, and the economy will be strong enough to save the rest of the world, but it is not our job anyway to criticize.

We have one more chapter in our review.

5. Shout outs to neighbors

Certain “hellos” in the flow of Kremlin propaganda are intended for two neighbors who do not want to be a part of the “Russian world”: Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukraine, as it has already been said, will:

  • never survive the crisis (even a special event of “Rossiya Segodnya” within the framework of their project “Ukrainian dossier” was devoted to the issue of power, economy, and coronavirus);
  • turn into a plague hotbed as infected migrant workers will first arrive from Europe, the healthcare system will be unable to cope with them, the epidemic will spread throughout the country, and infected Ukrainian refugees will reach other countries;
  • undergo a power crisis when the government is unable to control the entire territory, not to mention the coronavirus;
  • see its president, Zelensky, use quarantine measures to seize power (to sell land and receive IMF credit);
  • remain against the lifting of Russian sanctions , which will destroy the European economy;
  • not be assisted by the EU or the U.S., as they are busy with their own problems.

It is high time, therefore, to think over the price of Russophobia.

In Belarus everything is going to be really bad as the country did not integrate with Russia on time. That is why there is no unified center for making decisions, including those for control over the epidemic situation. That is why Russia had to close the borders while Belarus becomes mired in epidemic and economic crisis.

One of the media outlets close to authorities of the Russian State Duma wrote that the coronavirus will beat “Lukashenko who fell from Russia’s grace – if not through direct infection (NeZygar Telegram already mentioned this once) then through economic crisis. Other media sources pointedly hint that such problems in the time of the “electoral cycle” in Belarus would not be needed and (what a surprise), it is worth thinking about Russophobia and a better control over the coronavirus.

Now it is not clear, whether it was random or intentional, that the information about the so-called “31st integration map” flowed into the media at the moment of the coronavirus crisis. This concerns Putin’s signing of a law that automatically recognizing the Belarusian and Ukrainian people as Russian speaking to simplify their acquisition of Russian citizenship.

Sputnik.by faithfully follows the common Russian narrative script. Its guests talk about either biological weapons or about the bad West that first created the virus and then could not cope with it. On their agenda is a mixture of conspiracy theory with geopolitical arguments about the coming economic crisis and the change of the world order. Generally speaking, this is no surprise. However, it is sad that among such guests there are people who are supposed to resist disinformation and fake news through their work. But for some reason they go along the usual path of “struggle against the rotting West” and repeat opinions of mainstream Russian media.

Meanwhile, the situation is quite serious, including the issue of informing the population and managing its behavior during crisis situations. Through resources associated with pro-Russian activity, as well as in groups in social networks, the idea is being promoted that independent media only fuel panic, and in fact, the coronavirus is – (choose the correct one) – “a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies”, “of the West”, “a seasonal disease”, “is not more dangerous than influenza.” At the same time, the idea of an approaching economic crisis and possible social consequences is repeated.

From what we discovered in looking at the Russian and Belarusian media segment, it becomes clear that in the near future the Kremlin information and other influence operations, including the case of Belarus, will be connected directly to the difficult economic situation and the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic. The thesis that “if Russia provides a decent standard of living for citizens, even Russophobes will decide to change their passport” already has traction on the internet. This thesis has been put forward by a Belarusian politician and businessman.

***
This article is also available on Reform.by.