The Kremlin’s calamitous messaging is prone to particular themes: the failure of global financial markets, the breakdown of social cohesion, the outbreak of nuclear war and other events, like pandemics, that may trigger global catastrophe. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent “infodemic” represents a ripe opportunity for Russian state-sponsored media that aims to influence audiences abroad. A population dealing with great uncertainty about the future (both regarding the virus’s spread and the economy) and a deluge of misinformation about COVID-19 might be more susceptible to stories that seek to feed those concerns and exploit them.
A recent RT op-ed titled “Decadent like the late Roman Empire, the West is committing suicide through its irrational response to Covid-19” writes that while “many think Covid-19 is some kind of alien invasion that spells the end of the world,” the real threat to society is the adoption of Western values, citing the West’s “suicidal shutting down of their economies to try to halt a virus that predominantly causes old and sick people to die just a few weeks or months before they would have anyway.” These countries, the article states, may be “be so weakened they will be invaded by others and be erased from the world map.” As of May 27, the article had more than 2,700 public shares, 3,600 comments and 5,800 reactions on Facebook.
In previous years, much of the calamitous messaging from Russian outlets hasn’t seen significant spread online. However, as COVID-19 coverage continues to dominate the media landscape and readers try to make sense of the pandemic, Russian state-sponsored media may see greater success in exploiting fear and gaining followers along the way. In the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election—where COVID-19 will surely feature prominently in campaigns and debates—reception to Kremlin calamitous messaging and its narratives might pose a greater threat than it had before.