US officials say Russian intelligence services are 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 .
Two Russians who held prominent positions in Moscow’s military intelligence service, known as GRU, have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort reaching the American and Western public, US government officials said on Tuesday. . 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 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 the end of May and the beginning of July, one of the officials said, the websites published around 150 articles on the response to the pandemic, including coverage aimed at either supporting Russia or denigrating the United States.
Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials was one that read, “Russian Aid Against Covid-19 to America Advances the Case for Detente,” which suggested that Russia had provided urgent and substantial assistance to the United States to fight the pandemic. “Beijing believes that the Covid-19 is a biological weapon”, which amplified the statements of the Chinese, was another.
The disclosure comes as the spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is a pressing concern as the November presidential election looms. U.S. officials seek to avoid a repeat of the 2016 race, when Russia launched a covert social media campaign to divide U.S. public opinion and favor then-candidate Donald Trump over his 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. Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation 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 Joe Biden, and recalls the 2016 Russian efforts 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 used the pandemic to promote anti-Western goals and spread disinformation.
An email to InfoRos was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
The sites promote their stories in a sophisticated but insidious effort that U.S. officials equate to money laundering, where stories in well-written English – and often with pro-Russian sentiment and anti-American sentiment – are passed on. to other sources of information to conceal 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 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 in the harsh approach against the crime of mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “must adapt to life in urban areas with high crime”.
Another story was titled “Ukrainian Trap for Biden,” and claimed that “Ukrainegate” – a reference to the 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”.