Thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the new coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic, US officials say.
The disinformation campaign promotes unfounded conspiracy theories that the US is behind the Covid-19 outbreak, in an apparent bid to damage the US image around the world by seizing on health concerns.
State Department officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation said false personas are being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages.
“Russia intends to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” said Philip Reeker, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia.
“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.
The claims that have been circulating online in recent weeks include allegations that the virus is a US effort to “wage economic war on China”, that it is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA or part of a Western-led effort “to push anti-China messages”.
US individuals including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, a philanthropist who has spent billions on global health programmes, have also been falsely accused of involvement in the virus.
Russia on Saturday denied the accusations, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling the TASS state news agency: “This is a deliberately false story.”
The disinformation campaign was identified by US monitors in mid-January after Chinese officials announced a third death from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Disinformation and false theories about the novel coronavirus are considered a serious threat.
Several thousand online accounts – previously identified for airing Russian-backed messages on major events such as the war in Syria, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile’s mass demonstrations – are posting “almost near identical” messages about the epidemic, according to a report prepared for the State Department’s Global Engagement Centre.
The accounts – run by humans, not bots – post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French and can be linked back to Russian proxies, or carry similar messages to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, it said.
Russian state-funded media started pushing anti-Western messages about the cause of the virus on January 20, with operators of the social media accounts beginning to post globally the following day, US officials say.
“In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy websites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes,” said Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, head of the Global Engagement Centre, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.
During many past news events, the accounts would post actively for up to 72 hours. But messages about the new coronavirus have been uploaded every day over the past month – a sign, US officials said, of Russia’s investment in a story unlikely to disappear soon from the headlines.
“In the Russian doctrine of information confrontation, this is classic,” said another official from the Global Engagement Centre.
“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.”
Experts believe there are parallels with previous conspiracy theories traced to Moscow, including a KGB disinformation campaign in the 1980s that convinced many around the world that US scientists created the HIV that causes AIDS.
US intelligence has also said that Russia interfered through social media manipulation in the 2016 election and seeks to do so again this year.
The Kremlin has denied the charges and US President Donald Trump has scoffed at suggestions of Russian help.