How do disinformation and misinformation spread in Kazakhstan?
Every person is inextricably connected with the process of consuming information about the world around them, both from the media and from alternative channels of communication. Today, one of the main problems is the quality of the information received and its impact on society. In the current globalized world, many media outlets use disinformation or sometimes fall under its influence, unknowingly producing inaccurate information, what we call fake news (Rubin, Chen, and Conroy, 2015). Nowadays, any global event (presidential elections, interracial or military conflicts, refugee situations, pandemics) is almost immediately “riddled” with fake news.
When COVID-19 reached several continents and turned into a pandemic, misinformation about coronavirus started to flood the Internet and social media. Experts urge users to verify every piece of information received through alternative and social media before trusting it. Kazakhstan, like other countries, was not ready to confront pandemic and infodemic, said Gulmira Sultanbayeva, a professor at the department of the Press and Electronic Media in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. “From the very beginning, The World Health Organization tried to update its answers as fast as possible to all questions related to COVID-19, and published (those answers) through various mediums. But the government or any other media in Kazakhstan had no interest in sharing the information with its people, who desperately needed it at that moment and it created an information vacuum,” Sultanbayeva said. She also mentioned that the government is supposed to train front-line workers, inform the public with the latest updates on COVID-19 on time, so they wouldn’t have panicked in emergencies. Zhanibek Nurish, an editor-in-chief at Ontustik Rabat, a daily newspaper in the South Kazakhstan region, said in an interview that he agrees with professor Sultanbayeva, that the information vacuum helped fakes go viral. “It’s very dangerous to leave many unanswered questions in society, especially, during the emergency period. When Kazakh citizens could not get proper answers to their questions about COVID-19, they start to look for alternative sources of information. The spread of fake news skyrocketed and filled that gap, where government and media supposed to inform the public with trusted resources,” he said.
Yelnur Alimova, a specialized journalism teacher at Suleiman Demirel University, also agrees that most of the widespread fakes in Kazakhstan might be prevented. “Kazakh government pressured media outlets to cover its mistakes instead of doing its real job, which is to inform the public about coronavirus,” Alimova said. Yelzhan Birtanov, a former health minister of Kazakhstan, was active in informing the public and giving updates on the coronavirus situation until he was detained in a corruption probe in late June. Alimova added:
“New health minister (Aleksey Tsoy) isolated himself from the media. Journalists couldn’t reach him for several weeks in the middle of summer when COVID-19 cases reached their peak in Kazakhstan. He separated COVID-19 death data into COVID-19 caused and pneumonia caused to lower the COVID-19 statistics of the state. Azattyq reporters tried to find the truth by counting buried people in specially created cemeteries for COVID-19 victims. But the government ignored these investigations.”
Besides his job at Ontustik Rabat, Nurish works for New Reporter, a non-profit media organization, funded by USAID. In the first half of 2020, he participated in a COVID-19 fact-checking project, where 134 fake news posts related to the pandemic have been exposed for now. Along with the New Reporter, FactCheck.kz and ThreedotsCA have also been helping to build the project. “The most popular fakes among the population were COVID-19 spreading masks imported from China, 80 percent of people with COVID-19 will die, airplanes are spraying red substance to infect massive population, etc. Moreover, disinformation about Harvard Professor Charles Lieber was probably the most viewed fake in Kazakhstan. It was actually formed by Russian propaganda and we shouldn’t underestimate the danger of it,” Nurish said.
It’s often a confrontation of information of opposing states or individuals, who defend their interests. The concept is not new and has been successfully used, for example, in the Soviet Union after 1923, when the Bolshevik government created Disinformburo, a state agency for the dissemination of purposeful lies (Manning and Romerstein, 2004). Disinformation is the very process of manipulating information: misleading someone by providing incomplete information, distorting the context, or distorting part of the information.
As noted in a 2016 Washington Post piece about the false origins of AIDS, before “fake news.” there was Soviet “disinformation.” In the 1980s, the Soviets made people all over the world believe that AIDS, which was a mystery disease at that time, was caused by US experiments and that the Pentagon created it as a biological weapon. Russia inherited Disinforburo’s practices and has successfully been using them to influence the public, especially in the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though modern society has more tools and knowledge to fact-check information.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the appearance of many conspiracy theories and fake news of various kinds. In Kazakhstan, on April 3–5, 2020, there was a short-term outbreak of coronavirus fake news about Harvard scientist Charles Lieber, who was allegedly accused of “producing and selling coronavirus to China.” In reality, Lieber was arrested for concealing his ties with China from the US government and Harvard University administration. He was arrested in late January 2020, and fake news about him spread to the Russian-speaking world in early April. The first news articles about Lieber, as the alleged creator of coronavirus, appeared in Russian media outlets such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovskij Komsomolets. Then, the fake news went viral with the help of Russian cloned websites, like bbcnewss.ru, ipne.ws, asia-times.org, press.cnnnews.ru, rua.gr, barometr.info, smi2.ru, evening-mail.ru, exclusivenews.ge, alternathistory.com, pikabu.ru, amediainfo.ru, and abcnews.com.ge, which were created to attract audiences using the names of well-known Western media outlets (Myth Detector 2020). Then it was taken to .kz domain websites to attract readers in Kazakhstan. It worked, and even major newspapers such as Yegemen Kazakhstan and Aykin published false information. Almaty TV, a regional TV channel, made a special report. Shuddin Saidov, a news producer at Otyrar TV, another regional TV channel based in the city of Shymkent, said that “they probably knew that it was fake.” He added that he wasn’t going to blame them for this huge mistake, but sometimes, newsrooms use this kind of false information on the agenda to attract more viewers or readers. Zhuldiz Abdilda, a deputy editor at Ulan, a national children’s newspaper, said in an interview that every person could make mistakes, but it should be handled appropriately to mitigate negative consequences. “I do remember that an Almaty TV producer apologized to their audience and Yegemen Kazakhstan also did,” she added. Mikhail Dorofeev of informburo.kz said, that the editorial staff of electronic media outlets should react to mistakes as they did in the pre-internet period. He added:
“When false or manipulated information was published in newspapers, there was no way to retract it. We had to write about our mistake in the next print (edition). Nowadays, electronic media outlets delete false articles, as if never published. It’s wrong. You are lying to yourselves and misdirecting the audience.”
Moskovskij Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda, where articles about the coronavirus conspiracy theory linked to Harvard Professor Charles Lieber was published, cover everyday issues of social and political life in Russia and circulate in all 85 regions of the Russian Federation and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Pavel Gusev, a long-time owner, and editor-in-chief of Moskovskij Komsomolets is one of the active journalists in Russia’s political life who is critical of the Russian government’s actions that interfere with journalists’ professional duties in Russia, but he still praises Putin. He once even declared that he would support him in a presidential election in 2018 and started a supporting campaign in his daily newspaper. The owner of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” Sergei Rudnov has been one of Putin’s close allies since the 1990s. Rudnev used to run Saint Petersburg-based TV in 1996 when Putin worked for the city’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. According to the report by Rand Corporation, an American nonprofit global policy think tank based in California, there are four identified patterns of Russian propaganda, such as multi-channeling, repetitiveness, lack of logic, and objective reality. All these patterns have been used against Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Once the disinformation campaign on Professor Lieber started, Russia’s propaganda machine began to publish provocative semi-truth articles about this trending story. On April 6, 2020, a couple of days after the fake story about Lieber went viral, Komsomolskaya Pravda published one more article where it is noted that “Western media outlets are attacking China, where coronavirus allegedly was created, to strengthen sanctions against it.”
Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews of the Rand Corporation analyzed Russian propaganda in 2016 and found these patterns with a case of conspiracy theory linked to Lieber. They noted that Russian propaganda used its new methods of disinformation partly when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and the state’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was the perfect time for a full display of the new propaganda approach in the era of the internet. Although the coronavirus crisis was another chance to use these propaganda methods, and Russia was more than ready for it.
Among the 17 media professionals interviewed, 10 said that Russia’s propaganda in Kazakhstan is a huge challenge for them. The other 4 interviewees said that misinformation through social media platforms, especially via messaging apps, was the bigger challenge for them. The latter group included media professionals of regional media outlets.
Darkhan Omirbek, a digital editor at Azattyq Radiosy (Kazakh edition of Radio Free Europe), believes Telegram and WhatsApp messaging apps turned to be major misinformation channels in Kazakhstan, as its usage by the Kazakh population increased rapidly during the nationwide lockdown. Omirbek told that Kazakhstani’s trust in government has been declining for decades and it is also a reason why the majority of the population is keen to believe in anonymously spread information via WhatsApp. He added:
“Besides that, media literacy among the population is low and new internet users think that everything published in social media and internet is true.”
Omirbek was a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and concluded that messaging apps were perfect for people who spread misinformation to hide from responsibility. “Kazakhstan is a comparatively small community and whoever starts to spread misinformation on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, we can quickly check the account, whether it’s fake or not. But it’s more difficult to follow misinformation in messengers, as they are encrypted, and private or restricted channels are used to spread,” he said.
Another freelance journalist from the Zhambyl region shared his observation regarding fake coronavirus news. He said that “in the first 6 months of 2020, a majority of the population didn’t believe that coronavirus exists, as rumors contained the idea that it doesn’t pose a danger to people, it’s just the flu.” He also said that people disobeyed lockdown measures and mask mandates. When government authorities closed interregional highways to mitigate the spread of the virus, people found alternative ways to transit to neighboring regions.
“Another set of fakes about COVID-19 that spread across Kazakhstan related to traditional treatment methods,” said Duman Smaqov of Factcheck.kz. “While (former) US President Donald Trump suggested injecting disinfectant as a treatment, Kazakhstanis were trying ginger, garlic, baking soda, lamb tail fat, horse milk, and various antibiotics, imported from India,” he added.
Smaqov also said that state-owned media outlets were helpless in a fight against misinformation. In turn, sometimes, they took a part in spreading false information regarding the coronavirus. “A well-known case was a conspiracy theory linked to Harvard Professor Charles Lieber, who allegedly created the virus,” he added. Also, several state-owned media outlets deleted a false article about Lieber and apologized to their audience, but some of them not only kept articles on their websites but also argued on social media defending their positions, even though it was clear that Lieber has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. He said:
“False claims and fake news spreads faster when executive authorities fail to fill the information vacuum with necessary information. The government failed to explain the true danger of coronavirus, the fact that alternative treatments won’t work, etc. Even COVID-19 infection and death data were delayed not for days, but weeks and the government manipulated data to show their efforts positively. All these holes in the information vacuum filled with unchecked and manipulated information, which usually ended up being false.”
Tamara Vaal, a chief editor of the Nursultan branch at Vlast.kz, said in an interview that the government lost the fight against anti-vaxxers. As of April 5th, 2021 around 175,000 Kazakhstanis had been vaccinated against COVID-19 although the government is way behind delivering the vaccine. Vaal also said that government authorities could use any media outlet to deliver messages and updates on the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they banned some of them from even attending briefings online. Vlast.kz was among them, and it took several months to get approved for government briefings again. She added:
“Government officials always tried to ignore challenging questions from journalists and switching to online was a relief to them. First, they started to use social media live tools to inform the public. In this case, we could not address the questions at all. Second, when they switched to Zoom, our questions were not delivered to speakers via the moderator, or reporters were often interrupted, muted, or even kicked out (from an online meeting).”