How Russia, China, and other governments use coronavirus disinformation to reshape geopolitics

Publication Year
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Late in May, an article published by the online journal the Strategic Culture Foundation claimed that a German government official leaked information revealing COVID-19 to be “a global false alarm.” Germany’s measures to control the pandemic were doing more harm than the virus itself, the article claimed. The piece went viral and was retweeted a whopping 15,020 times. But the Strategic Culture Foundation was no independent and trustworthy source of information--not about the coronavirus, or about anything else. Purporting to focus on policy analysis and global affairs, the journal was really a front operation for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, which ran it, and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That COVID-19 is being incorporated into government propaganda efforts like the Strategic Culture Foundation—which published, according to the US State Department, “Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists” for its target audience of Westerners—comes as no surprise. The precursor to the Foreign Intelligence Service, the KGB, ran a global misinformation campaign in the 1980s that accused the United States of developing HIV for use as a “racial weapon,” weakening American diplomacy during the Cold War. Once again, a health crisis is being used as fodder for misinformation that countries like Russia hope will help reshape the geopolitical playing field.

As part of a Princeton University project on COVID-19 misinformation narratives, we’ve been cataloging the various false storylines that have been circulating online since the beginning of the pandemic. Our data is full of stories that we think of as short-term narratives, or those that are relevant to an upcoming event in the next two to three months. As covered in a previous piece, these fake storylines often boost or denigrate one politician or political faction. Another set of political misinformation has a separate aim: to set conditions for arguments to be made in the long-term, over the next few years.

Publication Topic
Politics and Public Opinion
Publication Type
Policy Article