Russia is behind the spread of coronavirus misinformation, US officials say

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Russian intelligence is using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis America is struggling to contain ahead of the November presidential election, officials said on Tuesday. American officials.Two Russians who held prominent positions in Moscow’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU, have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort reaching the American and Western public, US government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The information had previously been classified, but officials said it had been demoted so it could be discussed more freely. Officials have said they are doing so now to sound the alarm on particular websites and to reveal what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.

Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, selected websites on Tuesday ran around 150 articles on the pandemic response, including coverage aimed at either supporting Russia or denigrating the United States. .

Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials, “Russian Aid Against Covid-19 to America Advances the Fold for Détente,” which suggested that Russia had provided urgent and substantial aid to the United States. United to fight the pandemic, and “Beijing believes Covid-19 is a biological weapon”, which has amplified the statements of the Chinese.

The disclosure comes as the spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is a pressing concern ahead of the November presidential election, as U.S. officials seek to avoid a repeat of the 2016 contest, when the Russia has launched a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The US government’s counterintelligence official on Friday warned in a rare public statement about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance their goals.

Even outside of politics, the two crises shaking the country and much of the world – the pandemic and race relations and protests – have offered fertile ground for disinformation or the falsification of lies. Mr Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing false information about a refuted drug to treat coronavirus in videos that have been deleted by Twitter and Facebook.

Officials have described the Russian disinformation as part of an ongoing and persistent effort to advance false narratives and create confusion. They did not say whether the effort behind these particular websites was directly linked to the November election, although some of the coverage appeared to disparage Mr. Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden and recalls the Russian efforts. of 2016 to exacerbate race relations in America. and lead corruption allegations against American politicians.

Although US officials have previously warned of the spread of pandemic-related disinformation, they went further on Tuesday by appointing a particular Russian-registered news agency InfoRos which operates a series of websites – InfoRos .ru, Infobrics.org, and OneWorld.press – which have exploited the pandemic to promote anti-Western goals and spread disinformation.

An email to InfoRos was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

The sites are promoting their stories in a sophisticated but insidious effort that US officials equate to money laundering, where articles in well-written English – and often with pro-Russian sentiment and anti-American sentiment – have passed. by other sources of information to hide their origin. and strengthen the legitimacy of information.

The sites also amplify stories from elsewhere, government officials said.

Beyond the coronavirus, the focus is also on America, global politics and current affairs stories.

A Tuesday headline on InfoRos.ru about the unrest shaking major American cities was titled “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” accompanying a story that lamented how New Yorkers who grew up approaching the fight against the crime of mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “must adapt to life in urban areas with high crime”.

Another story made the headlines of “Ukrainian Trap for Biden”, and claimed that “Ukrainegate” – a reference to stories surrounding Mr. Biden’s son Hunter’s old ties to a Ukrainian gas company – “continues to grow. unfold with renewed vigor ”.

Two people who also held senior positions at InfoRos, identified on Tuesday as Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, previously served in a GRU unit specializing in military psychological intelligence and have deep contacts there, officials said. .

InfoRos and One World’s ties to the Russian state have already caught the attention of European disinformation analysts.

In 2019, a European Union task force that studies disinformation campaigns identified One World as “a new addition to the pantheon of Moscow-based disinformation sites.” The task force noted that One World’s content often parrots the Russian state’s agenda on issues such as the war in Syria.

A report released last month by a second non-governmental organization, Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab, examined the links between InfoRos and One World and Russian military intelligence. The researchers identified technical clues linking their websites to Russia and identified some financial links between InfoRos and the government.

“InfoRos operates in a shady gray area, where regular news activities are mixed with more controversial actions that could most likely be related to Russian state information operations,” the report’s authors concluded.

On its English Facebook page, InfoRos describes itself as an “news agency: the world through Russia’s eyes”.

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