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From Infodemic to Information War


Brussels, May 3 – An analysis of 225 Dutch-speaking far-right and conspiracists Telegram public channels, some of them based in Belgium, shows the porosity between disinformation linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and pro-Russian war propaganda. This EDMO BELUX investigation (download attachment) also highlights how this phenomena fits into a more global trend of convergence of narratives on these two topics. 

In the context of a new peak of disinformation when the Ukraine war started, and learning from the coronavirus-led infodemic and the circulation of international disinformation narratives, the VUB and EU DisinfoLab have joined forces to analyse how these global trends translated in Belgium, specifically on Dutch-speaking Telegram public channels.

In the first section of this investigation, the researchers conducted a comparative analysis of fact-checked disinformation about the ongoing conflict across different countries, languages, and platforms. From conspiracy claims to clickbait, similarities emerged with narratives pushed with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A first shared narrative gives expression to a sentiment that things (whether the war or the virus) are escalating out of control. Fabricated claims of a genocide conducted by Ukrainians recall crimes against humanity, accusation for allegedly plotting the pandemic and performing Covid-19 vaccines. The memory of the Nazi regime has led many to misuse the term with a derogatory purpose: from labelling the invasion as a ‘denazification’ mission to equating the treatment of the unvaccinated to persecured Jews. Conspiracy theories abound these days, resonating with specific communities, who are likely to be convinced that there are biolabs funded by the U.S. in Ukraine, as well as that Covid-19 was artificially made in a Wuhan lab. The same mentality leads to the denial of facts, and the trivialization of war victims or virus casualties.

Maria Giovanna Sessa, Senior Researcher at EU DisinfoLab and co-author of the study, commented: “Political and international crises can be the foundation for an information crisis. The current war in Ukraine, following the infodemic on Covid-19, shows how disinformation narratives can converge.” 

The second part of the report presents an analysis of narrative signals in 225 Dutch-speaking public Telegram channels pertaining to far-right and conspiracist communities. Reflecting broader on international trends, this analysis reveals emerging narratives surrounding the war in Ukraine, but also the continuation of entrenched discourse on the coronavirus pandemic. The presence of conspiracist narratives such as claims that the United States had established biolaboratories in Ukraine point towards a recurrence of previously successful narratives. This suggests that shifts from embracing coronavirus conspiracies to pushing war propaganda is a salient pivot point in a much longer process of narrative evolution on social media. As such, a key outcome of this study is that in order to persist and propagate, disinformation needs to contain predictable, recurring elements. And that twists and innovations need to be introduced in order to keep up with rapidly changing external events.

For Tom Willaert, co-author of this research and Post-Doctoral Researcher at the VUB, “These results are only a first step. Our research reveals that public channels have shifted towards pro-Russian war propaganda, and that this shift is a salient pivot point in an on-going process of narrative evolution. More granular research is now needed to better grasp the support for these disinformation items as well as their impact on society.” 

The full research is available for download here. The EDMO BELUX hub welcomes further cooperation with journalists and academics to work more extensively on this topic or dataset.

For Trisha Meyer, Coordinator of the EDMO BELUX hub at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, “This work calls for a community-based network to tackle disinformation, as it travels cross-border and cross-language. At EDMO BELUX, we will continue with our partners to explore the narratives’ tactics and solutions to counter disinformation in Belgium and Luxembourg.

*Data availability statement

The keyness scores for words in the retrieved Telegram dataset can be queried through the online demonstrator accompanying this report.

The “From Infodemic to Information War” EDMO BELUX study was featured in the June 2022 edition of the RAN Spotlight. Read it here (in English).