Disinformation against Ukraine and the EU in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic

On 19 May 2020, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, in cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, and with the support of the European Union organised an online-webinar “Disinformation against Ukraine and the EU in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

Panelists and participants of the webinar discussed a wide range of issues, including which new challenges the COVID-19 reality has brought to the EU and Ukraine, how they are countering interference and disinformation, as well as how they can create synergies to maximise their efforts in this fight.

Olena Carbou, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, moderator of the discussion, opened the event, underlining the importance of joint efforts in fighting disinformation, which in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, affects people’s lives.

Carbou: “For the last years, the European Union and Ukraine have been on the frontline of the disinformation war”.

Thomas Ilka, Regional Director of the European Dialogue at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, in his welcoming remarks, emphasised that fight against disinformation was one of the priorities of work of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Ilka: “Both Ukraine and the European Union have been one of the battlegrounds of the disinformation war, and it all turns more intense with COVID-19”.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, Director for analytics at Internews Ukraine, emphasised that the situation regarding the spread and coping with COVID-19 was permanently changing in Ukraine. Political environment was evolving as well. According to Mr. Yermolenko, Russian and pro-Russian actors in Ukraine are now using different information channels, “which is a very dangerous thing”. These actors use the pandemic as a tool for their disinformation and political purposes. Many new disinformation narratives appeared but, generally, they present the variations of already existing ones, such as “Ukraine is a failed state” or “the West wants to buy or rob Ukraine”, etc.

Yermolenko: “Pre-Euromaidan actors are getting stronger and stronger, and they are launching a huge disinformation campaign”.

Jurgis Vilcinskas, Deputy Head of the Strategic Communications Division, European External Action Service, underlined that COVID-19 was a big game-changer. On one hand, it is being exploited by traditional disinformation actors (pro-Kremlin ecosystem), on the other hand, there is a lot of misinformation (including unintentional spread of all kinds of conspiracy) currently. There is a need to have different policy responses to that. In terms of Ukraine, there are quite a lot of disinformation narratives, which in particular include such as: “Ukraine is not able to deal with COVID-19”, “Ukraine is leaving Donbas behind” or “Ukraine is essentially abandoned by European allies”.

Vilcinskas: “Disinformation around COVID-19 has an immediate impact on real life”.

Nadiia Romanenko, Analyst at TEXTY.ORG.UA, presented the dynamics of Russian disinformation in Ukraine based on the weekly monitoring conducted by TEXTY.ORG.UA. According to the monitoring, coronavirus is the top topic at the moment, and existing disinformation narratives are turning around this topic. She confirmed that the key messages of Russian disinformation on coronavirus are based on already existing disinformation narratives. Ms. Romanenko positively assessed the work of the Ukrainian government to provide necessary information on quarantine and handling the COVID-19 situation.

Romanenko: “Ukrainian civil society and government cope with coronavirus quite good”.

Tanel Tang, Member of the Support Group for Ukraine, European Commission, stressed the importance of cooperation between different actors of all levels in the field of fighting disinformation. Mr. Tang presented the EU’s support to Ukraine in this area. Civil society is a very important part of this support. For example, the EU will be providing support to broadcasting TV program on countering fake news in cooperation with the local Ukrainian platform. Engagement with the government is also crucial. In these terms, cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was stepped up. According to Mr. Tang, the EU will also increase its support to the Eastern and South-Eastern parts of Ukraine, as well as facilitate media literacy activities in these regions.

Tang: “Support to freedom of expression and media freedom is very important in the context of COVID-19”.

Veronika Víchová, Head of Kremlin Watch Program at the European Values Center for Security Policy, noted that the best way to deal with the crisis was to be prepared for it in advance. Unfortunately, in many cases, EU member states were not well prepared, especially when it comes to communication and fighting disinformation. However, Ms. Víchová mentioned some interesting and inventive examples of countermeasures. She also outlined that in the current conditions many governments have been helped by civil society and private sector. Besides, Ms. Víchová overviewed different types of channels used by governments for communication with the public (special websites, messengers, chatbots, etc).

Víchová: “This crisis showed an important role of public broadcasters”.