NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Between Facts & Anti-NATO Disinformation Campaigns

Policy Memo No. 77 
Authors: Cătălina Meiroșu, Vlada Șubernițchi, Alexandru Damian 

NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a robust one. The Alliance took measures to curb the effects of the pandemic, mainly by providing support to national civilian efforts – hundreds of airlifts for medical supplies and medical personnel, setting up field hospitals, sharing medical expertise, helping with testing or setting up a pandemic response fund for immediate relief to its members or partners in need. Romania was the first NATO member state to use the Alliance’s Strategic Transport Capacity to bring medical equipment to the country.
Despite these efforts, the pandemic revealed some weaknesses. The outbreak exposed a tense competition between Allied states in acquiring medical supplies. There was a competition between EU countries, as they were all dependent on the same supply chains outside Europe. Solidarity – the most important European value – was put to the test. It made European countries vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation.

It made European countries vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation. Both the Russian Federation and China fueled the misinformation and set up intense fake news campaigns. They used the pandemic to improve their image and to sow mistrust between the Allies. The most obvious example is the so-called Russian assistance convoy to Italy, designed to improve public perception of Moscow.

Propaganda comes in different shapes. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be providing fertile ground for state and non-state actors for their disinformation campaigns. Alongside the European Union, NATO has been one of the main targets of these campaigns. Plenty of anti-NATO narratives were disseminated, some manipulating actual events, in order to generate fear or mistrust. Anti-NATO narratives are widely promoted, portraying the Alliance as either being on the brink of collapse, being unable to support member states, or being responsible for spreading the virus through military exercises, or even preparing for invading other countries. False claims like these are spreading fast and are usually disseminated via numerous channels and proxies.

The countries in the Black Sea region are some of the most exposed to such disinformation campaigns. They have limited resilience to propaganda, they host a large Russian-speaking population that consumes mainly Russian-language media, whose messages are designed to target them. And, although disinformation campaigns against NATO or the EU are nothing new in the region, their intensity during the COVID-19 is unprecedented. Georgia, Ukraine, or the Republic of Moldova are targeted, in particular.

NATO’s efforts to fighting disinformation have also intensified recently, either by creating some units or by supporting other external initiatives set up by NGOs, fact-checking groups, academia, youth, etc. These efforts need to be further increased, as actors disseminating false news seem ever more resourceful and target audiences larger than ever. There is need for better coordination between NATO and other institutions fighting disinformation, but also better coordination between initiatives supported by NATO, either NGOs or fact-checking initiatives. These efforts must be accelerated, especially in regions prone to disinformation and with low resilience, the Black Sea region being one of these regions.

The full report can be found here.

This paper is part of the project “NATO’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: “How youth can understand NATO efforts and help fight propaganda” implemented by the Romanian Centre for European Policies and financed by NATO Public Diplomacy Division