COVID-19 foreign influence campaigns: Europe and the global battle of narratives

06-04-2020

The global health crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic – which is currently hitting EU Member States, not least Italy and Spain, particularly hard – raises concern that a combination of disinformation and heavily promoted health diplomacy, echoed by local proxies in Europe, could potentially pave the way for wider influence in other sectors in the wake of the crisis. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initially concealed information about the spread of the virus. Research suggests that they thereby delayed measures to alleviate the spread of the disease. At the same time, the CCP launched far-reaching efforts to silence domestic criticism. The CCP's efforts to restore Beijing's tainted image both at home and abroad include attempts to export the blame for the virus via a wave of conspiracy theories, in a move that seems to be inspired by the Kremlin's well-known tactics. At the same time, Beijing has launched a highly visible global aid offensive, providing expertise, test kits and other essential medical equipment – not all of it for free, contrary to the CCP's media offensive – to a number of countries, including in Europe. Both Moscow and Beijing seem to be driving parallel information campaigns, conveying the overall message that democratic state actors are failing and that European citizens cannot trust their health systems, whereas their authoritarian systems can save the world. Meanwhile, the EU – which has taken significant steps to help citizens both in the EU and beyond – has acknowledged the geopolitical components in what has been dubbed the 'politics of generosity', and is preparing to protect Europe against the next stage in these influence operations.

The global health crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic – which is currently hitting EU Member States, not least Italy and Spain, particularly hard – raises concern that a combination of disinformation and heavily promoted health diplomacy, echoed by local proxies in Europe, could potentially pave the way for wider influence in other sectors in the wake of the crisis. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initially concealed information about the spread of the virus. Research suggests that they thereby delayed measures to alleviate the spread of the disease. At the same time, the CCP launched far-reaching efforts to silence domestic criticism. The CCP's efforts to restore Beijing's tainted image both at home and abroad include attempts to export the blame for the virus via a wave of conspiracy theories, in a move that seems to be inspired by the Kremlin's well-known tactics. At the same time, Beijing has launched a highly visible global aid offensive, providing expertise, test kits and other essential medical equipment – not all of it for free, contrary to the CCP's media offensive – to a number of countries, including in Europe. Both Moscow and Beijing seem to be driving parallel information campaigns, conveying the overall message that democratic state actors are failing and that European citizens cannot trust their health systems, whereas their authoritarian systems can save the world. Meanwhile, the EU – which has taken significant steps to help citizens both in the EU and beyond – has acknowledged the geopolitical components in what has been dubbed the 'politics of generosity', and is preparing to protect Europe against the next stage in these influence operations.