Russia is using an online operation to stir up confusion around the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Department of State said in report on Wednesday.
A Russian-backed misinformation cycle spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports by infiltrating US social media conversations and leveraging a deceptive Internet framework of Web sites, the report said.
The Kremlin’s efforts have most recently focused on conspiracy theories around the pandemic, the report said.
“Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading misinformation and propaganda around many topics,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the department’s Global Engagement Center.
The department named more than half-a-dozen Web sites that it accused of serving as “proxies” for Russia to peddle conspiracy theories about the pandemic that have been widely spreading and hotly debated across social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The online news sites appear independent from the Russian government, but in reality serve as a “connective tissue” between the Kremlin and state-funded media that often promote the same misinformation, Gabrielle said.
“That’s what makes them effective,” Gabrielle said. “It’s difficult for the average person online to look at these sites and know the Russian affiliation.”
Russia has regularly denied claims from the US that it is behind online disinformation campaigns, last week calling similar assertions “persistent phobia.”
The Web sites that the department identified on Wednesday have promoted theories that allege COVID-19 was created in a laboratory as a bioweapon, that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is plotting to use the pandemic as an excuse to microchip people and that plans for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus are a ploy for pharmaceutical companies to make money.
“Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation around health and science issues,” Gabrielle said.
“The Russian disinformation ecosystem exploits fear and confusion,” she said.
While building up a following on Facebook and Twitter, some of the Web sites have downplayed their ties to Russian intelligence or concealed funding from the Kremlin, the department report said.
One of the sites, Canadian-based Global Research, has amassed an audience of nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook.
The Web site regularly publishes articles from fictitious personas created by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.
The headline of a recent Global Research article suggested that COVID-19 originated in the US and the article was shared by a Chinese spokesman on Twitter before the Web site took the claim down.
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