No laughing matter Russian police have started prosecuting Internet users for spreading fake information about the coronavirus pandemic, even when it's satire
A video lampooning conspiracy theorists — featuring freemasonry, Flat Earthism, Bill Gates, and microchips — prompted one of the first investigations
On April 7, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case “on the basis of the dissemination of false information about coronavirus.” They opened the case under Article 207.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, which President Vladimir Putin signed into law on April 1, making the distribution of knowingly misleading or false information about coronavirus (or any situation posing a threat to public safety) a crime. The maximum punishment according to the law is three years in prison. In cases where a person dies as a result of false information, offenders face up to five years behind bars.
The Investigative Committee opened the April 7 case because of a video posted on Twitter claiming that the coronavirus was engineered in a Novosibirsk virology research lab called “Vector,” and then purposely dispersed throughout Russia and China via an explosion. Without specifying the user’s Twitter handle, the agency stressed that it is now looking for whomever made the video.
On April 6, opposition vlogger Alexander Thorn posted just such a video to Twitter. It begins with him asking “everyone to share this video” and saying “this is firsthand information.” In the clip, Thorn explains that the Novosibirsk research facility Vector designed the coronavirus, and that an explosion that occurred there in September 2019 was by no means a coincidence.
“The purpose of the explosion was to release the virus into the air. Notice that at that time there were forest fires raging in Siberia. They set those fires on purpose so that the smoke would carry the virus to China and everything would start from there. This was an operation of the global shadow government — freemasons, obviously — so that we’d all start constantly talking about the virus, and stop talking about how the Earth is flat,” said Thorn. At the end of the video, he also alludes to microchips, vaccines, George Soros, Bill Gates, and radiation from cellular towers that “makes people gay.”
Talking with Meduza, Thorn clarified that no one from the Investigative Committee has spoken to him, and that he hasn’t seen any documents about the opening of a criminal investigation. “First I realized that what the Investigative Committee was saying on TV was about me. And then they started showing my face on RenTV and some other channels,” he added. Thorn is working with the “Open Russia” human rights initiative (which is providing him with legal assistance) and intends to dispute any criminal charges, though he pointed out that this wouldn’t bear any serious consequences for him, since he lives in New York permanently and hasn’t been back to Russia in more than a year.
In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Thorn admitted that a small part of his audience might take the clip seriously, as at no point in the video does he indicate that he is parodying conspiracy theorists. “I don’t think the Investigative Committee got involved simply because the video doesn’t have a disclaimer. Most likely that wouldn’t have stopped them. The level of absurdity [in the video] is off the charts. And of course I can’t put disclaimers in my videos. I can’t put a warning sign before a joke saying ‘attention, there’s about to be a joke.’ Humor doesn’t work that way. It wouldn’t be funny. I was trying to make the video seem as real as possible,” Thorn told Meduza.
In Thorn’s opinion, the Investigative Committee understood the video's satirical nature but launched the inquiry anyway. “They just need to close cases and make room for more stars on their uniforms. And most importantly, they need to instill fear in people so that no one breathes a word about coronavirus. Because the state-run media’s information campaign is riddled with lies, propaganda, and suppression, and the authorities have to stamp out information about the reality of the situation that people on the ground can provide. They’re doing everything they can to intimidate people,” said Thorn.
The vlogger noted that he isn’t making any assumptions about what investigators might do next. Open Russia’s human rights initiative declined to comment on the case.
A VKontakte post about errors at a hospital triggers another investigation, while the Leningrad region weathers a hoax about armored vehicles and gunmen
There are at least two other investigations now underway into fake stories about coronavirus. The first case was launched on April 3 in St. Petersburg because of a post published a day earlier (and later deleted) in a VKontakte group called “Sestroretsk News” (Sestroretsk is a small municipality in Petersburg's Kurortny District), claiming that someone who recently tested positive for coronavirus was sent home from a Sestroretsk health clinic via public transportation. Local opposition activist Anna Shuspanova was the community member who shared the story with the group. In comments on her post, other Sestroretsk residents confirmed some of the story's details.
The local authorities arrested and interrogated Shushpanova on April 3, confiscating her phone and all of her computer equipment. “They even took my late father’s old broken computer, along with a friend’s flash drive that had photographs of her daughter from kindergarten on it,” Shushpanova explained. A search order was issued without a corresponding court decision — as is done in instances when a search cannot be postponed. A court later upheld the search as lawful.
Shushpanova is now considered a witness in the case. The activist told Meduza that another Sestroretsk resident named Andrey Romanov gave her the information that prompted her to make the post in the “Sestroretsk News” group. Romanov, for his part, declined to reveal his own source in talks with Meduza. He stated that he tried to give information about the situation to both the St. Petersburg and Kurortny district coronavirus hotlines, as well as to the federal hotline and other authorities. At this moment Romanov is also considered a witness in the case. Administrators of the “Sestroretsk News” VKontakte group have not been implicated.
Pavel Yasman, Shushpanova’s lawyer from the Open Russia human rights initiative, told Meduza that questioning is ongoing in the case, but there is no information concerning suspects at this point. Yasman added that the criminal case raises big questions from a legal standpoint. For example, the defense doesn’t know whether investigators have evidence that the information stated in the post is in fact false.
“But the main question is, who knew that this information was deliberately falsified? What if the original source didn’t know that it was false information and relayed it to someone else, who considered it to be reliable? Anna Shushpanova, also considering it to be reliable information, forwarded it to the group’s administrator. And the administrator, also trusting the veracity of the information, spread it. I think that if one looks at the case objectively, no one should be prosecuted,” argued the defense attorney.
Nevertheless, Shushpanova says she's sure that she is being threatened with criminal prosecution because of her activism, which includes her membership in a local election commission. “In 2021, we’ll have elections for the State Duma and the [St. Petersburg] Legislative Assembly. I think there’s an incentive to punish me to the maximum extent,” she said.
On April 8, law enforcement opened yet another “fake news” investigation (the most recent such case at the time of this writing) after a photo started circulating online showing armored vehicles outside the town of Volkhov. According to the publication Bumaga, the photo spread on social networks and in the media in late March. Reports linked the presence of the armored vehicles and artillery with the coronavirus pandemic. Local officials subsequently denied the reports about armed vehicles and persons mobilizing at the edge of town (in fact, the photo depicts a military drill conducted in Samara), and the Investigative Committee is now looking for the person responsible for the hoax.
The authorities have already fined several Russians for spreading coronavirus fakes online. Many of these people can’t explain why they fabricated the stories in the first place.
According to the website Kholod, several dozen Russians have already been fined for the dissemination of false information based on a different legal statute that concerns the abuse of mass media freedoms (Section 9, Article 13.15, of Russia's Code of Administrative Offenses), and in some cases police aren’t even required to look for the original source of the fake news. In mid-March, 28-year-old Tatar hairstylist Oksana Garipova recorded a voice message about supposed plans in the city of Nizhnekamsk, in Tatarstan, to impose a strict coronavirus lockdown. Local residents started sending the message to each other en masse, and Garipova eventually spoke to a regional TV station and apologized for the prank. “In fact, no one told me anything about [a lockdown]. I just did it for fun, or you could say, as a joke,” she explained.
Garipova explained to Kholod that she'd received a similar voice message on Facebook before she created her audio clip “as a joke” for her friends. “I just listened to it and you could basically say that it got stuck in my head. I just kind of repeated what it said and what I remembered,” she explained. She was fined 30,000 rubles (roughly $400) for the stunt.
Others who were fined were also unable to articulate why they spread coronavirus falsehoods. Some people intimated that in a way they were trying to get at the truth of the coronavirus situation in Russia. Some recorded apology videos, which regional offices of the Internal Affairs Ministry in turn uploaded to their websites. A 28-year-old factory worker from Ussuriysk, in Russia's Primorsky Krai, sent his colleagues a video with a fake story about how everyone in the office had contracted coronavirus. He later confessed that he “recorded the video for fun.” Some offenders who recorded apologies, meanwhile, say the police didn’t inform them that they planned to share the videos publicly.
Translation by Rob Viano