Internews – Rooted in trust
Rooted in Trust (RiT) is a global pandemic information response program tackling the unprecedented scale and speed of the spread of COVID-19 related rumors and misinformation in Lebanon, Mali, in Colombia, Sudan,
Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe (see website). At Internews, we define rumors as unverified qualitative information documented from a first-hand source within the community. Our rumor tracking methodology allows us to analyze community feedback to understand and respond to the hopes, fears, questions and concerns that often propel the spread of misinformation.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, beginning on February 24, received significant media coverage which some say partly distracted global public attention from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the geographic distance between Ukraine and the countries targeted by RiT, we have documented a notable influence of the Ukrainian invasion on the COVID-19 rumor data we collect. Between late February and late May 2022, we collected social media posts and comments consisting of COVID-19 related rumors with direct mention of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in all of our focus countries. In response to the data collected, some of our teams have identified and highlighted this new intersection of war and pandemic related rumors (see community bulletins from Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan).
The purpose of this article is to present an analysis of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine influenced misinformation about COVID-19 in several humanitarian contexts based on the data we collected.
Although the data is not meant to be representative of all online conversations or sentiments, rumors can tell us a lot about community concerns, questions, perceptions and shortcomings. To that end, we analyzed the posts and identified five rumor trends about the intersection of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trends collected argue that the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that:
COVID-19 has disappeared or is no longer a priority
COVID-19 is and always has been a hoax
there is a strategy to divert attention from COVID-19
there are US bioweapons labs in Ukraine
there are inconsistencies with the state of COVID-19 infections in Ukraine
These findings are intended to be useful to organizations working on health-related topics with vulnerable communities in humanitarian settings. The results shed light on community concerns, which organizations can use to create responsive programming and fill information gaps. Additionally, the findings may also contribute to the field of “infodemic” management by paving the way for future research examining the implications of current events on a disinformation ecosystem.
A common and recurring sentiment across all identified trends was concern over the sudden shift in media coverage from COVID-19 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which sparked debate within our communities and raised accusations of double standards and disproportionate media coverage of Russia. the invasion of Ukraine versus other conflicts or issues, especially in non-Western contexts (see Aljazeera and NPR articles). In many cases, this has been accompanied by recurring criticism of the role of the West, and particularly the United States, in the global response to the pandemic.
We have also identified two particularities of this subset of rumors. The first is that most rumors about the invasion of Ukraine came from Twitter (51.2%), Facebook (39.5%) and Telegram (3.7%). While, when analyzing all rumors (including those related and unrelated to Ukraine) during the same period, most rumors came from Facebook (51.1%), Twitter ( 34%) and YouTube (2.9%). The second is that despite our regular social media and face-to-face rumor gathering, we only found cases of Ukraine invasion rumors in our social media data. For more details on data, you can visit our Google Data Studio.
In this report, we will not identify the origins of the rumors or single out instances of misinformation. However, it is important to mention that there is growing evidence that COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are willingly embracing pro-Russian disinformation about the invasion (see European Digital Media Observatory article and of NDTV). The rest of this report presents a detailed analysis of each of the five major trends identified above.