Coronavirus Pandemic Leads to Spike in Disinformation Directed at US, NATO in Europe

exercise in Lithuania in 2015
Spc. Shawn Betschart, right, of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, secures the perimeter with a Lithuanian counterpart during an exercise in Lithuania in 2015. Lithuania's Defense Ministry said this week that the coronavirus pandemic has created conditions for disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting the NATO alliance to grow. (U.S. Army photo/Megan Leuck)

STUTTGART, Germany -- Disinformation aimed at undermining the U.S. and NATO forces has surged in Europe as adversaries seize on the coronavirus pandemic in their attempts to create instability, Lithuania's Defense Ministry said in a new report.

There have been 807 cases of false or misleading information about the virus, much of it focused on Lithuania, since February, according to an analysis by the Lithuanian military's strategic communication department.

"Alas, the coronavirus crisis has not only not reduced security threats in Europe but created conditions for the threats to grow," Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said in a statement Wednesday.

The most recent incident occurred Tuesday when Karoblis received a fake email purportedly from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stating that allies were pulling out of Lithuania, where NATO forces have been deployed for the last several years as a deterrent to potential Russian aggression.

Similar emails were sent to Lithuanian media and NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry said.

"It is one in a series of attempts to turn the pandemic crisis into a security crisis," Karoblis said in the statement. "Fake news like this piece are aimed at sowing distrust in our Alliance partners and NATO unity."

About two-thirds of the disinformation comes out in Russian, the ministry said. Lithuania, like other Baltic states, has a large Russian-speaking population.

One of the phony messages involved a claim that a U.S. solider deployed to Lithuania was infected with the coronavirus. Other disinformation narratives have centered on supposed failures among European countries to handle the coronavirus outbreak, as well as bad behavior of allied troops in the Baltics.

"The narrative also claims that NATO finances nuclear weaponry instead of fighting COVID-19, which puts European, including Lithuanian, citizens at risk. NATO is also blamed for 'anti-Russian' rhetoric," the Lithuanian Defense Ministry said.

While Russia wasn't singled out as the culprit for the various disinformation attacks, allies have been increasingly concerned about Moscow's attempts to create confusion regarding the role of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe. Last week, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Tod Wolters, said during a teleconference with reporters that it's imperative for allies to call out disinformation.

"Number one, recognize when you have malign influencers and they're telling falsehoods and point those out and correct that to 100%," Wolters said. "And number two, taking the time to talk about your operations, your activities, your investments, what you're doing from a health perspective to positively influence the good outcome of all your forces."

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