State-backed media outlets from China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are targeting Western audiences with misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic in European languages. The articles sometimes earned more engagement on social media than those of independent outlets, according to a new study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) released Monday.
The researchers found that state-backed outlets have been spreading conspiracy theories and highlighting civil unrest in articles written in French, Spanish, and German. Social media engagement with the stories from state-backed outlets rivaled that of established, independent outlets like Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País.
During the researchers’ observation period from May 18 to June 5, the Russian state-backed media network RT garnered the largest median engagement per article. OII focused on engagement and clicks on Facebook and Twitter. They counted “engagement” as all potential reactions on these social media platforms.
NEW: Our latest memo looks at #covid19 news from state-backed outlets targeting French, German and Spanish speakers. These outlets criticized the weakness of democratic responses, emphasized success at home and in some cases advanced conspiracy theories.https://t.co/OY3T9w3aWx
— ComProp Research (@polbots) June 29, 2020
During the three-week period, RT had 528 median engagements for articles in French, 158 for articles in German, and 442 for articles in Spanish. Comparatively, Le Monde had 105 median engagements, Der Spiegel 90, and El País 27 for articles in their native languages about coronavirus in the same time frame.
Chinese state-backed media outlet Xinhua was also successful at gaining an audience, with 374 median engagements per article in French and 144 median engagements per article in Spanish.
Katarina Rebello, an OII research assistant who worked on this study, said in a statement that these state-backed media outlets target disinformation toward social media users looking to gain clarity about COVID-19.
“Many of these state-backed outlets blend reputable, fact-based reporting about the coronavirus with misleading or false information, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The researchers identified three main themes among the articles spreading misinformation about the pandemic.
Three Fake News Tactics
The first theme aims to undermine readers’ trust in their public institutions by reporting on civil disobedience and strained relationships between Spanish, German, and French public officials and their citizens. The researchers identified this tactic as one aimed at undermining democracy and instilling a sense of doubt in readers about Western governments.
The second theme was an emphasis on the success of the outlets’ home countries’ response to the pandemic. “Chinese outlets underscored the country’s leadership role in promoting international cooperation and facilitating a global recovery from the public health emergency,” the researchers wrote.
Research assistant Rebello identified this theme as a driving force for why state-backed media outlets from these countries are so successful at spreading misinformation during the pandemic.
“Some of these operations are interested in praising their country’s response to the pandemic or shifting blame to other countries,” she told The Globe Post. “These governments may also be seeking support in places where they want to have allies and good relations.”
The third theme centered around conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. Chinese state media particularly pushed back against the notion that the coronavirus originated in China. In their German-language reporting, the Chinese-backed outlet CRI also pushed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a bioweapon manufactured by the United States.
Rebello explained that readers may engage with this kind of content because they don’t trust the information they receive from traditional European news sources.
“People may be willing to engage with these media outlets if they distrust the news and information being produced in their own countries,” she told The Globe Post.