A new memo from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, has lifted the lid on the actions of English language state-backed media in Russia, China, Iran and Turkey during the coronavirus pandemic.  

The Computational Propaganda team at the OII found outlets such as China Daily and RT (formerly Russia Today) are pushing messages to millions of potential followers that contain misleading content and conspiracy theories. These outlets also criticise the response of Western governments to COVID-19 while positioning their own states as world leaders in both scientific response and the distribution of aid to others. 

This content has the potential to reach tens of millions of online users, and can be up to ten times more effective in generating engagement such as likes and shares than articles from UK broadcaster and news outlet, the BBC. 

Professor Philip Howard, Director, Oxford Internet Institute, said: 

 “COVID-19 is the undisputed number one topic of conversation online right now. State-backed news outlets from Russia, China, Iran and Turkey are using their social media reach to push positive messages about their governments’ handling of the crisis, while being highly critical of countries in the West. These social media posts can sometimes be far more effective in engaging online users than more traditional news outlets. 

“It is clear some states are using this crisis to suggest democratic states have been corrupt and incompetent in handling this global pandemic, while acting as cheerleaders for the efforts of their own authoritarian regimes.” 

 This memo is the first in a series that will examine misinformation and the debate around the COVID-19 pandemic. The full memo is available on the Computational Propaganda project website.

 Notes for editors

For media enquiries please email press@oii.ox.ac.uk or contact Professor Philip Howard, Dr. Jonathan Bright in the UK or Hubert Au in Hong Kong (GMT +8).

Research and comment from OII researchers on COVID-19 will be published on the COVID-19 section of the OII website

 About the Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.