Thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the new coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic, US officials say.
The disinformation campaign promotes unfounded conspiracy theories that the US is behind the COVID-19 outbreak, in an apparent bid to damage the US image around the world by seizing on health concerns.
US Department of State officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation said that false personas are being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages.
“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker said.
“By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response,” he said.
The claims that have been circulating online in recent weeks include allegations that the virus is a US effort to “wage economic war on China,” that it is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA or part of a Western-led effort “to push anti-China messages.”
US individuals, including Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, have also been falsely accused of involvement.
Russia on Saturday denied the accusations, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling the TASS state news agency: “This is a deliberately false story.”
The disinformation campaign was identified by US monitors in the middle of last month after Chinese officials announced a third death from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
More than 2,500 people have since died, mostly in China. The number of cases exceeds 78,000 and the virus has reached more than 29 countries, with deaths in Italy, Iran and South Korea, forcing public officials to close schools and impose restrictions.
Disinformation and false theories about the novel coronavirus are considered a serious threat.
Several thousand online accounts — previously identified for airing Russian-backed messages on major events such as the war in Syria, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile’s mass demonstrations — are posting “almost near identical” messages about the epidemic, according to a report prepared for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and seen by reporters.
The accounts — run by humans, not bots — post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French and can be linked back to Russian proxies, or carry similar messages to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, it said.
Russian state-funded media started pushing anti-Western messages about the cause of the virus on Jan. 20, with operators of the social media accounts beginning to post globally the following day, US officials say.
“In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy Web sites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes,” said Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, head of the Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.
During many past news events, the accounts would post actively for up to 72 hours, but messages about the new coronavirus have been uploaded every day over the past month — a sign, US officials said, of Russia’s investment in a story unlikely to disappear from the headlines soon.
“In the Russian doctrine of information confrontation, this is classic,” another Global Engagement Center official said. “The number of coronavirus cases globally hasn’t reached its apex, so the Russian strategy is to very cheaply, but very effectively take advantage of the information environment to sow discord between us and China, or for economic purposes.”
Experts believe there are parallels with previous conspiracy theories traced to Moscow, including a KGB disinformation campaign in the 1980s that convinced many around the world that US scientists created HIV, which causes AIDS.
The US believes the latest Russian disinformation campaign is making it harder to respond to the epidemic, with the public becoming suspicious of the Western response.
A State Department official said that Russian operatives appeared to have been given “carte blanche” to spread disinformation.
“Whether or not a particular theme is being directed at the highest levels doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that they have freelance ability to operate in this space to do whatever damage they can, which could have seismic implications,” the official said.
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