Disinformation fuels Romanias coronavirus spike

In Romania, COVID-19 conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream, and they are costing lives.

Across Europe, countries are contending with an upsurge in infections as rigid controls on gatherings have been relaxed and people return from summer getaways. But in Romania, a coronavirus spike is being fueled by disinformation, conspiracy theories and suspected Russian-backed propaganda.

National television stations have been broadcasting anti-vaccine and corona-skeptic messages from prominent campaigners and politicians, sowing doubt about preventive measures among the population and contributing to a rise in the number of infections, according to a top government official and two experts.

Since July 22 Romania has logged over 1,000 new confirmed infections per day, with the number of patients in intensive care also rising. The country brought in local lockdowns and several local authorities mandated mask-wearing in all public places, hoping to reverse the trend. The government has warned against giving credence to unofficial sources spreading misinformation about the virus.

“We have had several types of disinformation campaigns,” Raed Arafat, the head of the Romanian governments Department for Emergency Situations, and one of the countrys top civil servants involved in the response to the pandemic, told POLITICO. These campaigns range from online articles and social media posts, to “attacking any person, including officials who publicly wrote any information to warn the population about what to do,” Arafat said.

“The biggest party in Romania, the PSD, also has the biggest number of coronavirus deniers” — Corina Rebegea, analyst

“We also had very well-financed campaigns from some who wanted to appear publicly to defy our recommendations, targeting young people to convince them to stop wearing masks,” he said.

“Some people appeared in the mass-media with opinions that lacked scientific basis, including doctors who are not specialized in COVID-related fields, arguing against preventive measures.”

The current spike can be attributed to disinformation “at least partially,” said Arafat.

“All of this taken together definitely had an impact on the population, creating confusion and recruiting a number of people who stopped following the rules, stopped wearing masks and began propagating conspiracy theories. From here we of course end up with a wider virus spread through the community because the rules arent followed,” he added.

Some of the disinformation can be traced back to Russian state-backed media organizations, said one expert.

“Those who construct these disinformation campaigns are state actors as well as a multitude of local ones,” said Corina Rebegea, director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Rebegea pointed to Russias media organization Sputnik and to several ultra-nationalist and anti-vaccination groups in Romania, which have been promoting conspiracy theories about the virus since the onset of the pandemic.

Rebegea said Romanian politicians are also “playing an irresponsible game” by amplifying and giving weight to online disinformation about the coronavirus in order to damage the government.

“Messages that minimize the effects of the coronavirus are taken up by mainstream politicians and commentators,” Rebegea said. “It seems to be very dangerous in Romania, because we are seeing a model that is characteristic of the Balkans, where the penetration of Russian propaganda is deeper,” she said.

The local edition of Russias website Sputnik has promoted street demonstrations against government safety measures and has repeatedly suggested the effects of the virus had been exaggerated by the government.

The organizer of a recent protest against pandemic countermeasures in Bucharest, Iosefina Pascal, is also an assistant to Romanian MEP Maria Grapini, from the socialist group. Pascal is one of the most prolific online advocates of corona-skepticism in Romania, and her activity is closely and favorably covered by the local edition of Sputnik. She could not be contacted for comment.

Sputniks spokesperson in Moscow said in a statement that the publication reserves the right to quote sources as it sees fit. “In some articles on our websites we quote experts, speakers etc. and their opinions (just like you are in the article youre writing),” the spokesperson wrote. “We also find that editorialising those opinions or branding those that do not correlate with the mainstream as “disinformation” is a form of censorship which we find inadmissible.”

Often in Romania, such opinions influence national politics.

An improvised coronavirus testing center at the national stadium in Bucharest | Robert Ghement/EPA

“The biggest party in Romania, the PSD, also has the biggest number of coronavirus deniers,” Rebegea said. Lia Olguța Vasilescu, a prominent PSD member of parliament, expRead More – Source