housands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread misinformation and alarm about coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic, US officials have said.
The disinformation campaign promotes unfounded conspiracy theories that the US is behind the new coronavirus outbreak, in an apparent bid to damage America’s image around the world.
State department officials tasked with combatting Russian disinformation told Agence France-Presse (AFP) false personas were being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages.
“Russia’s intent is 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.
Some accounts have falsely claimed the US is waging “economic war on China” and that the virus is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA.
Health officials identified the new coronavirus in late 2019, and called it Covid-19. It was initially linked to a live animal market in the city of Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China. Coronaviruses are thought to come from animals and then spread from person to person.
In four out of five people, Covid-19 causes only mild respiratory illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. But in some, the virus can cause severe respiratory illness including pneumonia. In the worst cases, it can cause respiratory failure.
Covid-19 has killed more than 2,340 people, mostly in China, and infected more than 76,000. The US has tested more than 400 people and found 14 confirmed cases, mostly linked to travelers.
A similar outbreak in 2003 involved the Sars virus, which was thought to have come from bats.
Experts said the coronavirus disinformation campaign has 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 virus that causes Aids.
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 “near identical” messages about the coronavirus, according to a report prepared for the state department’s Global Engagement Center and seen by AFP.
The accounts are run by humans, not bots, and post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French. They can be linked back to Russian proxies, or carry messages similar to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, the report said.
“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 Lea Gabrielle, the head of the Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.
The US believes the Russian disinformation campaign is making it harder to respond to the epidemic, particularly in Africa and Asia, as some of the public has become suspicious of the western response.
The WHO warned on Friday that the window to stem the global outbreak was narrowing, voicing alarm at a surge of cases with no clear link to China.
A state official said Russian operatives appeared to have been given “carte blanche” to attack the US.
“Whether or not a particular theme is being directed at the highest levels doesn’t matter,” the official said. “It’s the fact that they have freelance ability to operate in this space to do whatever damage they can, which could have seismic implications.”