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How Joseph Stalin's "Coronavirus Prediction" Went Viral

In March, the Russian website Panorama published an article claiming that Joseph Stalin had made a 1947 prediction about ways the United States would fight geopolitical rivals in the future. This prediction, which Panorama says can be found in volume 16 of the Complete Works of Joseph Stalin, posits that US warfare would be conducted not with atomic bombs but with epidemics. To support Stalin’s prediction, the report also cites Chinese government claims about coronavirus originating in the US. The story went viral across the Russian-language segment of the internet and was even printed by some small media outlets. The problem is, however, that Stalin never said anything like that.

But Panorama did not have any malicious intent: it’s a satirical news page. For example, the site has in the past reported on a former Manchester mayor being sentenced to five years in prison for disrespecting the memory of Winston Churchill and on Chinese intelligence services attempting to access Joe Biden's brain using a 5G wireless network. Not only are the stories published by Panorama hard to confuse with real news, the word satirical is even there in their logo.

Along with the article, Panorama produced a picture of Stalin with a made-up quote. The picture then embarked on its bizarre journey through social media divorced from any reference to the source or its satirical nature. It is worth noting, however, that reactions on social media were divided. Some users immediately recognized it as fake, while others were duped and commented how Russia shouldn’t ever expect anything good coming from the United States. Most surprisingly, however, some users even confirmed having come across the quote themselves while perusing through volume 16 of the Complete Works of Joseph Stalin.

So what exactly were the details in Stalin’s so-called prediction that made so many social media users (including one member of Ukrainian parliament) fall for it? According to Panorama, Stalin stated that the US would use a more sophisticated approach to fight enemies in future. Stalin wrote that the US would design new viruses to spread across socialist countries like China, Italy, and the USSR and advised that they should "be alert not only now, and not in the next twenty years, but always, as long as the source of this evil [the US] exists on the planet."

In this context it’s important to understand why the quote resonated so much with the Russian-speaking social media audience in the first place. First of all, according to a social opinion poll conducted in 2019, 70 percent of respondents in Russia have a positive view of the impact of Stalin on Russian history. Secondly, 67 percent of respondents in 2019 believed that the US is Russia’s main enemy. By trying to poke fun at the gullibility of some internet users, Panorama’s story inadvertently wedged itself into territory some Russians were already prepared to believe. This story’s virality certainly shows how troll armies and government-led disinformation campaigns aren’t even always needed to spread false information. Sometimes a satirical article is enough to convince thousands of a falsehood.

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