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Who is behind Spanish Telegram’s storm of Covid-19 disinformation?

2021-06-28 Source:www.codastory.com Author:Darren Loucaides


  On November 7, 2020, around a thousand people gathered in Madrid to protest against the Spanish government’s Covid-19 restrictions. The demonstration was staged by the activist group Police for Freedom. Alongside far-right elements stood natural health advocates, conspiracy theorists, UFO enthusiasts and members of the dissident Chinese religious sect Falun Gong.

Newspaper and television reports have characterized protesters as “negacionista” (denialists),

New research shows that Covid-19 skepticism in Spain has been fueled by misleading and false stories, spread online by an eclectic mix of rightwing sympathizers, anti-establishment activists and conspiracy theorists. It can also be traced back to a complex web of sources, spanning Latin American media outlets, Russian disinformation networks and Chinese dissidents. 

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Europe has become a key battleground for such actors. Faced with a torrent of fake news and misleading information, major social media platforms — including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube — have attempted to shut down Covid-19-denialist content and accounts. But as in Germany, which has seen the world’s largest anti-lockdown protests, and other countries, these efforts have driven Spanish coronavirus skeptics to the less easily tracked and moderated environment of Telegram. 

The messaging app and social network, which boasts half a billion users worldwide, was already relatively popular in Spain. During the pandemic, it has become a haven for coronavirus denialism. Over the past six months, myself and Laura Aragó from the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia analyzed 60 channels and groups on Spanish Telegram, all of which have grown rapidly over the past year — some reaching hundreds of thousands of followers. 

The Madrid demonstration was one of several that followed the Spanish government’s announcement of a strict curfew at the end of October, part of the nation’s measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. Some turned violent, with police pointing to infiltration by extreme-right groups.

The surge of demonstrations coincided with plummeting public confidence in official pandemic narratives. According to a poll by Ipsos, Spain’s declining willingness to vaccinate – down from 72% in August 2020 to 64% in October – corresponds with a similar trend observed in the world’s main democracies. Another survey commissioned by Spanish newspaper El Pais in November found that nearly 65% of respondents believed that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory, while more than 40% believed that there is a conspiracy behind the vaccines. One in five said they would get vaccinated only if strictly necessary, while 13% said they would never do so. 

So, who is behind the misinformation fueling this widespread rejection of accepted science? One of Spain’s most popular Covid-skeptic Telegram channels is Noticias Rafapal, run by Rafael Palacios. 

Palacios, a middle-aged man with a background in media and communications, said that his previous work experience has taught him that mainstream news outlets are all beholden to the “economic powers that govern Planet Earth.”

With 126,000 subscribers, Noticias Rafapal has been one of the biggest spreaders of Russia-linked coronavirus misinformation on Spanish Telegram.

Marcelino Madrigal has closely tracked disinformation related to the pandemic. For many years, he worked for a Spanish IT and defense systems company. Colleagues nicknamed him “The Guru,” owing to his formidable analytical skills. After he was laid off, shortly before the coronavirus began to wreak havoc on the world, he began to monitor the spread of false information about the disease on social media.  

Speaking via video call while chain-smoking at his desk, 56-year-old Madrigal described the three main types of homegrown disinformation actors operating in Spain. First comes the alternative medicine lobby, pushing unproven natural remedies for the virus. Close behind it are personalized Telegram channels like that of Rafael Palacios. “And last but not least, we have a group driven by a pre-existing ideology — the far-right,” he explained. But if we look for the nearest relations to their Covid denialism in parliament, it’s clearly Vox.”  

A week before El Pais published the survey that found two-thirds of Spaniards believed Covid-19 was created in a laboratory, three million people watched a prime-time interview during which a guest claimed just that. 

Broadcast on the popular and often sensationalist TV channel Telecinco, a Chinese virologist named Dr. Li-Meng Yan told Iker Jimenez, one of Spain’s most famous television hosts, about her research. It allegedly proved that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. Her interview was picked up by major media outlets across Spain. 

Dr. Yan was essentially discovered by Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, and a Chinese billionaire living in the U.S., named Guo Wengui. After hearing of her unfounded assertions, Bannon and Wengui put Dr. Yan on a plane from Hong Kong to the U.S., found her accommodation, and then secured appearances on shows hosted by popular conservative presenters, including Tucker Carlson of Fox News. Her ideas spread around the world rapidly and she was soon turning up in Europe too.

Like many western countries, Spain has become a target of anti-China voices aligned to the U.S. far-right and Chinese dissident groups like Falun Gong. 

  By far the most shared outlet in Spain’s Covid-19-skeptic channels and groups is the website Tierra Pura. Stating that it reports on aspects of the coronavirus previously undisclosed “due to the manipulation of the communist regime” in China, Tierra Pura publishes a constant stream of misleading and false information about Covid-19. It is also another striking example of disinformation aimed at Latin America filtering into Spain, having first launched in Argentina in March 2020.

Raquel Miguel, an investigator for the independent non-governmental organization EU DisinfoLab, found that Tierra Pura is not only closely tied to Falun Gong itself, but also to the Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times, a sprawling global media organization that has become a key spreader of coronavirus disinformation and pro-Trump propaganda. 

Like other popular Telegram channels, Noticias Rafapal frequently shares links to articles from the Epoch Times and Tierra Pura.