Armenia: disinformation spreading faster than the epidemic
The first coronavirus case was registered on March 1. In the following six months, more than 46,000 cases of infection were detected in the country, and the number of victims of COVID-19 exceeded 900.
Such an outbreak of infection in a country with a small population suggests that many have relatives, friends or family members who have personally come across the virus.
And yet six months after the start of the pandemic, one can still hear conversations full of doubt about the existence of the infection at markets, yards and even taxis in Yerevan and other cities of Armenia. In these conversations, real sources and reasons for the spread of COVID are still being rejected. And this, in turn, becomes the subject of political speculation.
These discussions are fueled by the constant disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories that are rife in the media space.
Even though many of the rumors circulating in local and regional media are groundless, part of the population does not even doubt their authenticity.
Ani Grigoryan, editor of fip.am fact-checking platform:
“At first, many people, taking advantage of the fact that information related to the coronavirus was still being processed and there were no reliable sources, threw illogical, manipulative information into the media field, and society swallowed it very quickly.
“A large amount of disinformation was posted online by various ‘doctors’, and the media contributed to their spread. For example, the former director of Masis Medical Center Nune Nersisyan constantly published sensational posts about the coronavirus. Many sites simply spread this information without even trying to check if it is true.”
Myths about the causes of the virus
In March 2020, when the virus had just reached Armenia, a local publication reported the discovery of the source of COVID-19. The Hraparak newspaper presented a 24-year-old Chinese man as the so-called “patient zero”, who, presumably, had sexual intercourse with various animals, including bats. The publication also said that the Chinese authorities issued a warning to ban sexual intercourse with animals – especially with bats. The publication, which was reprinted by other media as well, actually referred to a fake satirical platform.
Some time later, Armenian news sites reported that the creator of the coronavirus had been found. The Iravunk newspaper, referring to the American website WCVB, wrote that the virus was created by the head of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University and that the professor had already been arrested. He was indeed detained, but for a completely different reason.
“Our media are generally very susceptible to news fakes, because there is no practice of verifying information. If they read content in English, they think it’s valid, the same story goes for Russian-language materials. They can simply reprint material from some funny humorous site and present it to readers as the truth. But the fact that the content is written in English or Russian does not mean that it matches reality,” says Arshaluis Barseghyan, a media.am journalist who is responsible for fact-checking.
The name of a Harvard professor was not the only one that appeared in Armenian resources in those days. Some publications, including a platform claiming to investigate fake news, claimed that American billionaire George Soros was behind the spread of the epidemic. The name of another American businessman Bill Gates was associated with the “chipping” of people under the guise of being vaccinated against the virus.
One site predicted that the epidemic would kill 26 million people worldwide, hypothesizing that Steve Jobs was behind it all. This was followed by a statement of the President of the Healthy Society public organization Marine Khachatryan, who said that the infection was created for the purpose of compulsory vaccination. She is infamous for being an active participant in the campaign against vaccinations and regularly becomes a source of disinformation in the media on various topics.
“There were several so-called influencers on social media, Facebook in particular, who were the main sources of disinformation. Facebook pages and groups were created with the sole purpose of spreading disinformation. There was, for example, a page called “Coronavirus – the scam of the century”. The page was run by four admins, and Facebook shows that its users are located in Russia. The page creators have recently opened a subsidiary page, which is now focused on the campaign against vaccines,” says Arshaluis Barseghyan.
This, of course, is far from the only myth about the pre-planned spread of the virus. In social networks, a “lair of evil” was revealed, claiming that COVID-19 had been known since 2012. As proof of this theory, they suggested taking a look at the recording of the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games and noting similarities between the “virus” and the performance set.
The analysis, borrowed from a Russian-language YouTube channel, is carried out in absolute accordance with the logic of conspiracy theories. The video also stirs the pot of the notion that 5G communication technology is a tool for the spread of infection.
How COVID-19 is spread
Since the virus swept across the world, many conspiracy theories have emerged trying to explain why the epidemic is spreading.
A widespread rumor that the epidemic is spreading over the 5G network has led to acts of “massacre” upon mobile towers carried out by crowds of angry people in different parts of the world. Later, this myth spread to Armenia. As a result, mobile operators had to officially announce that the 5G network is not supported in Armenia.
The legend that the infection is allegedly transmitted through COVID-19 tests has stirred a number of hot discussions on social networks. Some Armenian sites, referring to a Russian-language YouTube video, called for a boycott against vaccinations and testing, since they are reportedly causing the spread of the virus.
The Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article stating that one of the sources of the infection is a US-funded laboratory operating in Armenia.
According to misinformation spread by the newspaper, one of the biological laboratories funded by the US Pentagon has become the source of infection in the country. The newspaper also reminded the readers that Russia is concerned about the work of US-funded laboratories in Armenia. Despite the fact that in 2018, by order of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Russian specialists were even allowed access to these laboratories in order to dispel Moscow’s suspicions.
According to a survey conducted by the CRRC Armenia Research Center, 9% of Armenians surveyed believe that the coronavirus epidemic was caused by the political / economic rivalry of world powers.
The epidemic has given rise to many reasons for geopolitical speculation in the media. At first, it was reported that the cause of it was the United States, that the pandemic arose in the context of a political conflict between the US and China. Only after the United States was among the worst-hit countries due to the coronavirus did the conspiracy theory cease its propaganda.
Some also argued that the coronavirus was created as a “biological weapon” in the framework of the US-Iran-China-Russia confrontation, and the infection itself was referred to as “the scam of the century.”
The spread of infection was explained not only by global political, but also by regional motives. One of the Armenian resources, for example, reported that Azerbaijan pays Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
There are publications that still claim that the spread of the virus is aimed at creating a new geopolitical system, accusing the “rich globalists” not only of paying the families of people who died for other reasons to pass them off as victims of the coronavirus, but also earning money from the sale of medical masks.
The famous “100,000 drams” hypothesis is also still popular in various circles. The point is that relatives of deceased are allegedly paid to agree to misrepresent the real cause, such as a heart attack, as coronavirus.
Shortly after the initial cases of infection, some sites and social networks began to spread a list of traditional therapies and drugs that are supposedly capable of preventing or even curing COVID.
While the world was looking for a vaccine against the virus, in Armenia myths began to spread that eating garlic could cure it. Ginger evaporated from store shelves, and its price rose approximately 10-fold, as many began to believe that it could indeed cure COVID-19. It has been proven that these products do strengthen the immune system, but there is no evidence that they are effective in combatting the coronavirus.
At some point, misinformation reached a climax in its implausibility, and there emerged articles claiming that masturbation also “increases immunity, therefore, can prevent the threat of infection.”
If the infection still could not be avoided, a home solution was proposed instead of proper testing – holding the breath for 10 seconds, which supposedly could help diagnose COVID.
In addition, the names of drugs touted as cures for the virus were regularly published, but the World Health Organization has not confirmed any of these reports.
Much of the misinformation on Armenian websites and social networks regarding treatment methods and the spread of the epidemic was mostly translations of Russian-language content. The inconsistency of these materials with reality can be easily detected by checking and searching reliable sources of information.
And, of course, the biggest myth is the “2020 myth”. There are people who consider the coronavirus epidemic to be a link in the dramatic events of the current year and are waiting for its end. They hope that with the departure of 2020, all problems will end.