US officials claim Russia is behind the spread of virus disinformation

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US officials say Russian intelligence services are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The officials alleged Russian operatives have acted in seeking to exploit a crisis the US is struggling to contain ahead of the presidential election in November.

Two Russians who have held senior roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for the effort to reach American and western audiences, according to the US government officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The information had previously been classified, but officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it. They said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and expose what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.

Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, the websites singled out on Tuesday published some 150 articles about the pandemic response, including coverage aimed either at propping up Russia or denigrating the US.

Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials were Russia’s Counter Covid-19 Aid to America Advances Case for Détente, which suggested Russia had given urgent and substantial aid to the US to fight the pandemic.

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Trump
President Donald Trump is in deep trouble in opinion polls ahead of November’s election (Evan Vucci/AP)

Another read: Beijing Believes Covid-19 is a Biological Weapon, which amplified statements by the Chinese.

The disclosure comes as the spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern heading into November’s presidential election, as US officials look to avoid a repeat of interference in the 2016 contest.

Ahead of that poll, a Russian troll farm launched a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and to favour then-candidate Donald Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The US government’s chief counter-intelligence executive warned in a rare public statement on Friday about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance their goals.

Even apart from politics, the twin crises buffeting the country and much of the world — the pandemic and race relations and protests — have offered fertile territory for misinformation or outright falsehoods.

Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation about a disproven drug for treating the coronavirus — hydroxychloroquine — in videos that were taken down by Twitter and Facebook.

Officials described the Russian disinformation as part of an ongoing and persistent effort to advance false narratives and cause confusion.

They did not say whether the effort behind these particular websites was directly related to the November election.

Election 2020 Joe Biden
Trump’s election rival Joe Biden has been denigrated by some of the misinformation US officials say has been spread by Russian sources (Andrew Harnik/AP)

However, some of the coverage appeared to denigrate Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and called to mind Russian efforts in 2016 to exacerbate race relations in America and to drive corruption allegations against US political figures.

Though US officials have warned before about the spread of disinformation tied to the pandemic, they went further on Tuesday.

They singled out a particular information agency that is registered in Russia, InfoRos, and that operates a series of websites — InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org and OneWorld.press — that have leveraged the pandemic to promote anti-western objectives and to spread disinformation.

Officials say the sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort that they liken to money laundering, where stories in well-written English — and often with pro-Russian sentiment — are cycled through other news sources to conceal their origin and enhance the legitimacy of the information.

The sites also amplify stories that originate elsewhere, the government officials said.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have nosedived through the pandemic (Evan Vucci/AP)

An email to InfoRos was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

Beyond the coronavirus, the campaign has included a focus on US news, global politics and topical stories of the moment.

A headline on Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest roiling American cities read Chaos in the Blue Cities.

It accompanied a story lamenting that New Yorkers raised under the tough-on-crime approach of former Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “have zero street smarts” and must now “adapt to life in high-crime urban areas”.

Another story carried the headline of Ukrainian Trap for Biden, and claimed “Ukrainegate” — a reference to stories surrounding Biden’s son Hunter’s former ties to a Ukraine gas company — “keeps unfolding with renewed vigour”.

US officials have identified two of the people believed to be behind the sites’ operations. Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously held leadership roles at InfoRos but have also served in a GRU unit specialising in military psychological intelligence and maintain deep contacts there, the officials said.

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