In early March 2020, Italian communist media outlet Il Manifesto published an article criticizing the ongoing NATO Defender Europe 20 military exercise in light of the COVID-19 outbreak raging in Italy. The story soon spread in Italian on social media platforms, gradually gaining engagement online. Just as it lost traction in Italy, the conspiracy was translated into Russian and started circulating again.
This narrative echoes previous attempts to promote anti-NATO sentiment in Europe, including within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The DFRLab previously reported that anti-NATO politicians and pundits have suggested that Defender Europe 20, a U.S.-led multinational military exercise scheduled to last through the spring, will bring the coronavirus to the Baltic states.
Despite many mainstream media outlets in Italy debunking the claims in recent weeks, the anti-Defender Europe 20 narratives originating in Italy still spread, often translated verbatim, to Russian-speaking social media. This case demonstrates that as COVID-19 continues to spread in Europe, various malign actors are seizing the opportunity to further their political agendas.
Spread in Italy
On March 2, Il Manifesto published an article titled “30mila soldati dagli USA in Europa senza mascherina” (“30,000 U.S. soldiers in Europe without masks”), which argued that the U.S. troops sent to “protect Europe from emerging threats” will be exempt public health measures put in place by governments in Europe to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus.
The article built on Italian citizens’ COVID-19 fears and their frustrations with restrictive lockdowns by suggesting that U.S. troops will be allowed to move freely throughout Europe while millions of Europeans are shut in at home. It ended with a jab at environmentalists, pointing out the level of pollution that will be produced by the armored vehicles employed during the NATO exercise.
In the days that followed, similar narratives about U.S. troops landing in Italy without protective masks were picked up by fringe media and conspiracy blogs. Although several Italian media outlets and fact-checkers debunked them, the disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories about the military exercise did not stop amassing significant engagement online.
To measure the levels of engagement the narrative garnered online, the DFRLab used the social media listening tool BuzzSumo, which returned 29 articles for the keywords soldati senza mascherina (“soldiers without masks”). The top six stories alone generated over 86,000 engagements on social media platforms, including reactions, shares, and comments.
Similar articles were also shared on Facebook. The DFRLab ran an analysis through the monitoring tool CrowdTangle that revealed that between March 2 and March 18, users published 860 posts on Facebook that received over 28,000 engagements.
Among other conspiracy theories, one particularly long text circulated on blogs and social media as early as March 9, receiving significant engagement. The text made a series of false statements about the United States, NATO, and the Defender Europe 20 exercise. For example, it claimed that European citizens were not informed of the exercise and that U.S. troops would neither wear masks nor abide by other measures adopted against the spread of COVID-19. The text was shared with little to no variance by several fringe media outlets and across social media platforms.
Although many outlets identified and exposed the text as a conspiracy theory, the exposure did not prevent the text from going viral online. Using the first sentence of the text to conduct a CrowdTangle search, the DFRLab identified 936 almost identical posts that registered 41,684 engagements on Facebook alone, with shares peaking on March 11.
Entering the Russian language space
Although the viral message stopped receiving any significant engagement from Italian-speaking Facebook users by March 15, the DFRLab identified a nearly identical text translated in Russian that started gaining traction on Russian-speaking social media outlets on the same day.
On March 16, identical posts started showing up on the Russian social media platform VKontakte. By March 23, the DFRLab had identified 66 Facebook posts including the identical text, receiving 8,699 interactions, according to an analysis run via CrowdTangle. While it has yet to reach the same level of engagement as the Italian version, its linguistic jump to the Russian information space suggests that its waning popularity in Italian does not necessarily translate into a waning of the narrative itself.