US accuses Russia of huge coronavirus disinformation campaign

Kate Ng
A worker in a chemical suit sprays disinfectant in a quarantine facility at the Gradostroitel health resort near the city of Tyumen after a 14-day quarantine for Russian nationals who were evacuated from Wuhan: Maxim Slutsky/TASS

US officials say thousands of social media accounts linked to Russia are part of a coordinated effort to spread disinformation about the new coronavirus.

The campaign allegedly aims to damage the US’s image and spread unfounded conspiracy theories that it is behind the outbreak which has infected nearly 78,000 globally and killed over 2,500 people.

US State Department officials told AFP fake accounts were created and used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram so the campaign could reach as many people as possible in multiple languages.

Philip Reeker, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, said Russia’s goal was to “sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within”.

“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.

A report prepared for the State Department’s Global Engagement Centre, which was seen by AFP, identified several thousand online accounts posting “almost near identical” messages about the virus.

These accounts were previously identified for publishing pro-Russian messages on major events including the war in Syria, Yellow Vest protests in France, and Chile’s mass demonstrations.

In recent weeks, claims that the US engineered the new coronavirus in an effort to “wage economic war on China” or that it was manufactured by the CIA as a biological weapon have been circulating social media.

The accounts also targeted Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, falsely accusing him of being involved with the virus’s spread.

According to the report, the accounts are run by humans instead of bots and post in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.

They can reportedly be linked to Russian proxies or disseminate messages similar to those published by Russian broadcast services such as Sputnik and RT.

Another official from the Global Engagement Centre was quoted as saying: “In the Russian doctrine of information confrontation, this is classic.

“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.”

The report drew parallels with a KGB disinformation campaign in the 1980s that convinced many people that the HIV virus was engineered by US scientists.

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