“Pharmaceutical industry denies the fact that vitamin C kills coronavirus”, “Lithuania has chosen natural selection – only the strongest will survive”, “NATO “helps” Lithuania by spreading Covid-19”. These are just a few false facts recently spread in Lithuania. Algirdas Kazlauskas, analyst at Debunk notes that the lockdown and online shift of public life have significantly activated misinformation about the coronavirus. Debunk made a research of online activities in Lithuania and spotted the false news during the first two weeks of quarantine.
“Analyzing the flow of information in Lithuania during the first weeks of lock down, we can mark two general trends of disinformation targets. First of all, we see the purposeful aim to undermine public confidence in the authorities – the health care system, academics, doctors and science in general. The second aim of disinformation is to undermine the trust in democratic institutions that maintain a peaceful world order, such as NATO and the European Union,” summarizes the analyst of Debunk.
On March 16-29, Debunk spotted 135 cases of propaganda and disinformation on Lithuanian and Russian websites and Facebook. The latter stood out as a key channel of misleading information – almost 7 out of 10 fake messages were caught in this social network. The main hot spots are the groups that have rapidly come together to discuss coronavirus. The two largest ones, “Coronavirus COVID19” and “⚠ Koronavirusas ⚠ (COVID-19)”, have a particularly large flow of misleading messages. Debunk also investigated Russian and Lithuanian websites during the lockdown – almost half a hundred cases of misleading information were identified there, most of which were spotted on RuBaltic, SputnikNews and BukimeVieningi websites.
According to A. Kazlauskas, the biggest problem is that disinformation messages usually contain some truth, which makes them more convincing:
“Unfortunately, many disinformation narratives came to life due to the inadequate response of official authorities, both local and international, to the potential spread of this new coronavirus and the social impact of it”, said Debunk analyst. “Therefore, in finding the causes and culprits of the crisis, it is crucial not to undermine public confidence in the main poles that have maintained our way of life so far – respect for human rights, democracy and the principles of scientific development.”
Topics and narratives differed among media channels. The narrative on Facebook with the biggest potential reach and involvement (more than 492,000 potential contacts) was the stories about a panic in the world: lockdown, the worst foreign examples or shortage of goods. Other widely circulated messages were “the virus has been purposefully created in laboratories” (more than 421,000) and “the ways to cure COVID-19 exist” (almost 382,000 of potential audience). Analysts of Debunk emphasize that not all coronavirus-related Facebook groups spread misinformation – there were no misleading news spotted in the group called “Koronavirusas - tikra info”.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian and Russian websites focused on the topics of NATO and the European Union, and aimed at presenting them, together with Lithuania and the Baltic states, as the ones not coping with the situation. “Lithuania fails to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic”, “NATO does not care about Lithuania” were the most common misinformation messages on websites. They even featured a few articles saying that Lithuania was responsible for the spread of coronavirus in Crimea or that Russia would have saved the Baltic states from COVID-19.
The methodology of periodic coronavirus disinformation research by Debunk includes both quantitative criteria (number of mentions), and qualitative parameters (narratives and reach). The artificial intelligence-based tool analyzes more than 30,000 channels a day, by spotting the fake news in 2 minutes after the publication.