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'Nefarious actors are at the root of Covid-19 fake news - and they are part of dangerous geo-political games'

We have a habit of thinking in Ireland that the likes of Russia, China or the alt-right in the United States have no interest in our country. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, writes Ireland South MEP Billy Kelleher.

Billy Kelleher

I’M NOT ASHAMED to say that I have been caught out by some of the fake news stories circulating over the past number of weeks. I for one, held my breath every morning for 10 seconds for three days to see if I had Corona. 

Having been a professional politician for over 30 years, my default position has always been to be sceptical about everything I see on TV, hear on radio, or read in a newspaper or online.

Yet I got caught out. How? Volume. Sheer volume. It was everywhere – from friends in WhatsApp groups, in text messages from people I trusted and respected. It was everywhere so how could it not be true? 

Earlier on in this crisis, we all heard the WhatsApp voice message purporting to be from a member of the Defence Forces telling his company to prepare for deployment as the Taoiseach would lock down the country early the next morning. Now we know it was fake news, but many people at the time thought it was real. 

Every one of the fake news stories has a grain of truth in them, so it’s not a massive stretch for someone, already stressed by the crisis and drowning under wave after wave of news, to be taken in by them. 

What’s important is understanding where they come from and how to combat them. Of course, the most obvious answer to the first question is someone pulling your leg for a few laughs, but more and more, there are nefarious actors at the root of these fake news stories. 

We have a habit of thinking in Ireland that the likes of Russia, China or the alt-right in the United States have no interest in our country. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Sowing instability in every country is their plan and while other countries may get targeted more than us, we are without doubt in their sights. 

Depending on who is pulling the strings, their goals are different. The alt-right want the European Union to fall apart. Other global powers want the Union’s economy to collapse so they can profit from the instability. Moreover, the rest want us fighting amongst ourselves so we stop looking outward and shining a light on their misdeeds. 

Take for example the claim that China is doing more for Italy than the European Union. Not only is it bogus, it is incredibly dangerous. There is no point in denying the fact that, in Italy, Euroscepticism has been on the rise in recent years. Those making these false allegations are attempting to inflame this situation for their own benefit. Those countries which the EU shine a light on in terms of human rights violations want the Union to fall apart. It was evident in the Brexit referendum, and recent elections in France and Germany. 

The EU is working night and day to fight Covid-19. As a collective, and individually as member states, there is non-stop collaboration and co-operation. Take for example the 2 million surgical masks shipped from France and Czechia to Italy. That received a lot less coverage than the bogus China claims. 

For some reason, those criticising the EU have failed to highlight the €2.3 billion that the EU has made available through a reallocation of Cohesion Funds to support Italy’s health care system and its economy. Additionally, the European Commission approved a €50 million aid scheme to allow the Italian government to support the production and supply of medical devices, such as ventilators, and personal protection equipment, such as masks, goggles, gowns, and safety suits at December 2019 prices. 

The €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme by the European Central Bank is of critical importance to Italy, and other countries who are facing short and medium term financing problems due to increased health care expenditure. Countries at risk of running out of cash to pay for the doctors, nurses and other supports needed to protect citizens will have the back up of the ECB and of the Union as a whole. 

On a more human level, German state governments have taken in many seriously ill patients from Italy and France to help their Intensive Care systems deal with the surge. 

It is a sad state of affairs when the European Union has to set up a website to tackle fake news online. There, and I advise those who are sceptical about what I’m saying to visit the site, you will see how the Union is supporting countries like Italy. The EU does not have authority over how each country runs their health system so it is focusing on things it can do. 

Now, the Union is not free of all responsibility, and when this crisis passes, it needs to critically assess how it communicates with citizens.

For me, not enough emphasis was put on communicating directly with citizens.

For as long as night follows day, national governments will take the credit for everything positive, and will blame the EU for everything that goes wrong or the people don’t like. 

How many of us know that the European Union has established its first ever rescEU stockpile of medical equipment worth €50 million? Or that the Member States are, through the Commission, jointly procuring, at more cost-effective rates, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and testing resources? 

The thing I have learned most through this crisis is to be sceptical. Incredibly dangerous and nefarious geo-political games are being played out as we all attempt to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

My advice is to get my information from trusted sources – our TV and radio stations, our major newspapers and online news sites such as thejournal.ie, from the HSE and the WHO.

Everyone should question information that doesn’t come from these sources because it’s clear there are many countries and organisations that want to create panic, to instill fear and for citizens to fight among ourselves.

Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fáil, is a MEP for Ireland South.

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