Russian intelligence agents are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis the United States is struggling to contain ahead of the November presidential election, have US officials said Tuesday.
Two Russians who held senior positions in Moscow’s military intelligence service, known as GRU, have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort aimed at American and Western audiences, US government officials have said . They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because 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 said they are doing it now to sound the alarm on particular websites and to reveal a connection between the sites and Russian intelligence.
Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, a trio of websites posted around 150 articles on the pandemic response, including coverage aimed at supporting Russia and denigrating the United States.
Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials was “Russian Aid Against COVID-19 to America Advances the Case for Detente,” which suggested that Russia had provided urgent aid and substantial in the United States to fight the pandemic, and “Beijing believes COVID-19 is a biological weapon”.
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 launched a secret social media campaign to divide American public opinion in favor of then candidate Donald Trump. The US counter-intelligence official warned in a public statement Friday about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance its 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.
Officials described the disinformation as part of an ongoing and persistent Russian effort to create confusion. They did not say whether the effort was directly linked to the November election, although some of the coverage on the websites appeared to denigrate Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden. These stories are reminiscent of Russian efforts in 2016 to exacerbate race relations in the United States and fuel allegations of corruption against prominent American politicians.
U.S. officials on Tuesday identified a news agency, InfoRos.ru, which operates a trio of websites – InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org and OneWorld.press – which they say have exploited the pandemic to promote anti- Westerners and spread disinformation. .
The sites are promoting their stories in a sophisticated but insidious effort that officials equate to money laundering, where articles in well-written English – and often with pro-Russian sentiment and anti-American sentiment – have come through. other sources of information to hide their origin and strengthen the legitimacy of the information.
The sites also amplify stories from elsewhere, government officials said.
The sites also focus on contemporary politics. A headline Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest in major American cities read on “Chaos in Blue Cities,” accompanying a story that lamented how New Yorkers who grew up experiencing the Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s fight against crime “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 Biden’s son Hunter’s old ties to a Ukrainian gas company – “continues to 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”.