This time of year, everyone is naturally taking stock of 2018 – the highs and lows of the past year – and what may lie ahead. Meanwhile, in Brussels, the EU’s direct initiative to identify, debunk and counter Russia’s disinformation campaign has come out with a list entitled “What did not happen in 2018?”
The East StratCom Task Force, part of the EU’s wider communications team, monitors Russian-language and European media to expose and debunk pro-Kremlin disinformation – “fake news” – much of which aims to sow seeds of doubt, distrust and division in European society rather than advancing a particular Russian position.
On its list of “Top Absurd Fakes” for 2018 are deliberately false stories about: the EU legalising paedophilia; Sweden, Germany and Denmark allowing necrophilia and bestiality – that is, having sex with corpses and animals; Danish zoos feeding household pets to caged predators; Germany establishing harems for refugees at tax-payers’ expense; Ukraine declaring Hitler a “national hero”; the West conspiring to rob Russia of glory at the Eurovision song contest; and West Nile Fever sweeping across the continent along with hordes of African migrants.
It is that last fake news item – about how West Nile Fever is spread or spreading – in particular that captured the Czech imagination, according to the Task Force list. I asked Veronika Víchová, Coordinator and Analyst of the Kremlin Watch Program at the European Values think-tank in Prague, what she made of it.
“I think that the list composed by East StratCom is fairly accurate in showing the main trends in the disinformation narrative in Europe, and the Czech Republic is no exception. I was wondering why they chose the story about West Nile Fever as the most important from the Czech Republic. But I suppose it was the one article that went ‘viral’, unlike others that consisted of more subconscious or subtle messages that continue to appear especially in Czech online media – or so-called [alternative] media; different fringe websites.”
The West Nile Fever story was published on June 20th by the Parlamentní listy website, a pro-Russian server which Kremlin Watch places atop its list of influential Czech-language disinformation websites.
The article in question cited a Czech “scientist” as saying mainstream media were wrong to reporting that West Nile Fever, “several cases of which recently occurred in the Czech Republic”, had been brought in by birds – migrants from Africa were to blame.
In fact, West Nile fever is caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes and wild birds. Person-to-person transmission of West Nile fever has never been reported. And the university “expert” cited by Parlamentní listy teaches computer programming but has no expertise in epidemiology or contagious diseases.
Veronika Víchová says blaming the spread of diseases on migrants – and a host of society’s ills – is a perennial propaganda tool not limited to Kremlin efforts.
“It’s been a common message spread not only by let’s say pro-Russian or pro-Kremlin media but by far-right parties all over Europe. It’s a common argument that migrants bring foreign diseases to Europe. At the same time, the topic of spreading disease – via ‘experiments’ – is not uncommon. There was a huge [fake] story that spread in Georgia about an alleged U.S. lab experimenting on Georgian citizens, spreading diseases and creating biological weapons, which got a lot of traction. So it [the West Nile Fever story] is hardly the first case.”
In summing up 2018, East StratCom writes – tongue in cheek – in the introduction to its “Top Absurd Fakes” for 2018 list, “Despite the best efforts of the European elites, neo-marxists, neo-nazis, euroliberals and LGBT activists, the West did not tumble into the immoral abyss.”
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