Russia behind spread of virus disinformation, say US officials

Updated 30 Jul 2020


US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. — AFP/File
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. — AFP/File

WASHINGTON: US officials say Russian intelligence officers are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic through English-language websites, trying to exploit a crisis that America is struggling to contain before the presidential election in November.

Two Russians who have held senior roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort meant to reach American and Western audiences, according to US government officials.

Russian officials on Wednesday rejected the accusations as conspiracy theories and a persistent phobia. One of the sites singled out by the US posted a response denouncing as categorically false the American assertions that it was linked to the Russian military intelligence service or was involved in propaganda.

The information had previously been classified, but US officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it. Officials said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and to expose what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.

Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, the websites published about 150 articles about the pandemic response, including coverage aimed either at propping up Russia or denigrating the US.

Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials were Russia’s Counter Covid-19 Aid to America Advances Case for Dtente, which suggested that Russia had given urgent and substantial aid to the US to fight the pandemic, and Beijing Believes Covid-19 is a Biological Weapon,” which amplified statements by the Chinese.

The spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern heading into the November vote. US officials want to avoid a repeat of the 2016 contest, when a Russian troll farm launched a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and to favor then-candidate Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. The US government’s chief counterintelligence executive warned in a rare public statement on Friday about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance their goals.

The pandemic and race relations and protests across the US have offered fertile territory for misinformation or outfight falsehoods. Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation about a disproved drug for treating the coronavirus in videos that were taken down by Twitter and Facebook.

Officials did not say whether the effort behind these particular websites was directly related to the November election, though some of the coverage appeared to denigrate Trumps Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and called to mind Russian efforts in 2016 to exacerbate race relations in America and spread corruption allegations against US political figures.

US officials have warned before about the spread of disinformation tied to the pandemic. But on Tuesday, they went further by singling out a particular information agency that is registered in Russia, InfoRos. It operates a series of websites, and that have leveraged the pandemic to promote anti-Western objectives and to spread disinformation.

Officials say the sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated way that they liken to money laundering, where stories in well-written English and often with pro-Russian sentiment are cycled through other news sources to conceal their origin and enhance the legitimacy of the information.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020