Prevailing themes in disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories during the COVID-19: Latvian case analysis

Disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories almost always surround global events. Whether it be the first Moon landing, which, according to some conspiracy theorists, was faked by the U.S. government, spread of AIDS and HIV in the 1980s, when various public figures and opinion leaders misinformed a significant part of American society about the disease, or annexation of Crimea in 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin disinformed the world about participation of Russian troops in the operation. SARS-CoV-2 or Covid-19 global pandemic is no exclusion. Moreover, being so impactful and widescale, it is surrounded by all three — disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.

Considering that the virus is registered in almost every country in the world, how it is covered and described becomes especially relevant. Hence, within this article, authors will analyze prevailing themes in disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories in the Latvian context. The period from March to July was chosen as the time frame. One of the main sources for examples were compilation articles made by the investigative project The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism “Re:Baltica”, which specializes in fact-checking and media monitoring.               

First, it is necessary to clarify terminology. Disinformation is false information, usually with a malicious intent to mislead. Sometimes it takes the form of propaganda issued by a government organization or media with an aim to directly discredit a rival power or glorify yourself. For instance, in order to vilify the Ukrainian government Russian outlets either close to or owned by the Kremlin were spreading disinformation. One of the most infamous examples is the case of “Crucified Boy” — news report of state-owned “Channel One Russia” about a public crucifixion of a three-year-old boy performed by Ukrainian soldiers. Later independent investigative journalists confirmed that it was a fake. Unlike disinformation, misinformation is not deliberately shared. It is still false or inaccurate information, for instance, false rumors. Yet in most cases misinformation is spread without evil intentions. On the contrary, sometimes people are sharing with the aim to help. Finally, a conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain events as a result of actions of a small, powerful group. It also tries to tie various actors, which are often not connected in order to find an underlying motive and meaning of the action. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as a further proof of the conspiracy. Apart from already mentioned Moon landing, one of the most popular themes amongst conspiracy theorists is the September 11 attacks. Despite various proofs of the terror act and rejected claims of conspirologists, there still are people who believe, for instance, that collapse of the Twin Towers was the result of controlled demolitions.

Latvian case analysis showed that three themes prevail in disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories — the origin of coronavirus, its treatment, and humiliating information about Latvia and its actions in the context of Covid-19. Starting with the least common of the aforementioned — the origin of coronavirus. In most cases these are conspiracy theories, which are translated into Latvian. Moreover, there is no evidence of a local conspiracy theory that gained a massive following. For example, one family in their Facebook group spread conspiracy theories about coronavirus created by Ivo Sasek, a lay preacher and founder of the Swiss-based religious sect “Organic Christian Generation”.[1] According to his channel “kla.tv” Covid-19 is an artificial business project to sell tests and destabilize China. These ideas are later translated into Latvian and mostly shared on Facebook by either ordinary users or lesser-known public figures with a reputation of a conspiracy theorist. For instance, one entrepreneur, who sells structured water, claimed that coronavirus was artificially created and originally distributed in the United States, as well as in some way related to Bill Gates' profit interests, and was introduced to China during military sports games.[2]                                   

Regarding the theme of treatment of Covid-19, in most cases it is misinformation with either unclear motivation or due to honest delusion. For example, a national scale outlet published an article, which stated: “Before the coronavirus reaches the lungs, it stays in the throat for four days. During this time, the person has a sore throat and has a cough. Drinking plenty of water and rinsing your throat with hot saltwater removes the virus.”[3] Later article’s author emphasized that she did not wish to spread dubious recommendations and that the main call was to consider dangers of the disease and to limit its spread as much as possible. Disinformation exists, but rather with the aim to sell alternative medicine. In general, they tell how with the help of homeopathy, ozone therapy, or dietary supplements, it is possible to cure the virus itself, not to get sick, and to overcome the consequences of Covid-19.[4] As for conspiracy theories, they are mostly “imported” i.e., people are translating them and spreading via social networks, usually Facebook. The movie “Plandemic”, in which Judy Mikovits, a former American research scientist, who is known for her discredited medical claims, argued that wearing a mask and a flu vaccine increases the risk of getting sick with Covid-19, while hydroxychloroquine, which is supposed to treat it, is banned from the public.[5] This film was also translated into Latvian and spreading on Facebook.

Finally — humiliating information about Latvia and its actions in the context of coronavirus. This theme became the basis for the most cases of disinformation and misinformation. The former was mainly spread by Latvian opposition politicians with the aim to undermine government solutions and promote themselves. One criticized the government for not abolishing utility bills for everyone, as it did in France. In fact, only part of France’s residents was exempted from paying these bills.[6] Various Russian outlets, that are close to Kremlin and have a history of spreading propaganda, were disinforming about Latvia’s actions. One media argued that only Russia could help Latvia’s “failing economy” because more than 35% of its residents are over the age of 65, but annual European funding accounts for 15-20% of Latvia’s GDP. Actually, only 20% of the population is over 65 years old, and co-payment of the European Union funds in various projects in 2018 was 1.1 billion euros or slightly above 4% of GDP.[7] In addition, there were several misinformation cases with unclear motivation or honest delusion about the government’s decisions.                                                                               

To sum up, in most cases three themes of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories prevail: treatment and origin of Covid-19, as well as humiliating information about Latvia and its actions. Share of disinformation is smaller than misinformation and conspiracy theories. It could be explained by the government and state agencies’ decisions. For instance, officials were quick to react in debunking various lies about Covid-19, explained, and communicated their solutions in an understandable manner. Usually, disinformation was spreading by either opposition politicians with aim to undermine government’s actions and promote themselves or by business owners trying to sell alternative medicine. Some disinformation about the situation in Latvia spread Russian outlets that are close Kremlin. Conspiracy theories, which gained public attention, were mostly translated, and were not originating locally.

ENDNOTES

[1] S. Bērziņa, E. Puriņa, “Apustulis, kas Hitleru pielīdzina Jēzum. Kas tiražē melus par Covid-19?” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 18.03.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/03/apustulis-kas-hitleru-pielidzina-jezum-kas-tiraze-melus-par-covid-19/

[2] S. Bērziņa, E. Puriņa, “Atmiņūdens tirgotājs maldina par koronavīrusu,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 21.03.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/03/atminudens-tirgotajs-maldina-par-koronavirusu/

[3] E. Puriņa, “Nav taisnība – karsti dzērieni un tīšanās dvieļos neārstē no Covid-19,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 01.04.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/04/nav-taisniba-karsti-dzerieni-un-tisanas-dvielos-nearste-no-covid-19/

[4] E. Puriņa, "Koraļļi, ozons un pretgripas zāles no Krievijas – kā tirgotāji māna sabiedrību,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 16.03.2020 https://rebaltica.lv/2020/03/koralli-ozons-un-pretgripas-zales-no-krievijas-ka-tirgotaji-mana-sabiedribu/

[5] S. Bērziņa, “Neslavā kritusi pētniece izplata nepatiesību: gripas vakcīna un maskas nevar aktivizēt koronavīrusu,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 11.05.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/05/neslava-kritusi-petniece-izplata-nepatiesibu-gripas-vakcina-un-maskas-nevar-aktivizet-koronavirusu/

[6] E. Puriņa, “Petrovs no Alternative maldina par valsts atbalstu krīzes skartajiem,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 30.03.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/03/petrovs-no-alternative-maldina-par-valsts-atbalstu-krizes-skartajiem/

[7] E. Puriņa, “Slīgst nabadzībā un atgriežas pie Krievijas – kā par Latviju Covid-19 laikā ziņo kaimiņvalstī,” The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, 01.05.2020, https://rebaltica.lv/2020/05/sligst-nabadziba-un-atgriezas-krievija-ka-par-latviju-covid-19-laika-zino-kaiminvalsti/

Published 14 August 2020

Author Aleksandra Palkova

Author Artūrs Bikovs