The State Department said Russia is using a well-developed online operation that includes a loose collection of proxy websites to confuse the coronavirus by amplifying conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Wednesday’s disclosure was rare for the Trump administration, which was cautious about blaming the Kremlin for disinformation campaigns, especially around the US election. Despite evidence that Russia launched a disinformation operation that divides social media in the 2016 US presidential election, the State Department report did not examine how, if at all, Russia is leading a another online influencer campaign in this year’s election.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, announced on Wednesday that the United States would offer a reward of up to $ 10 million for information identifying people working with foreign governments to interfere in the U.S. election through illegal cyber activity.
The department detailed a cycle of Russian-backed disinformation that spreads fake news online through state officials and state-funded media reports, infiltrating conversations on U.S. social media, and exploiting a deceptive Internet framework of websites. The Kremlin’s efforts have recently focused on conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, according to the report.
“Russia plays an important role in creating and spreading disinformation and propaganda around many topics,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
The department has named more than half a dozen websites that, serving as “proxies” for Russia, peddled a series of pandemic conspiracy theories that have spread widely and hotly debated on social media platforms. like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Online media appear to be independent from the Russian government, but in reality serve as a “connective tissue” between the Kremlin and state-funded media which often promote the same disinformation from their own channels, Gabrielle said.
“That’s what makes them effective,” Gabrielle said. “It is difficult for the average Internet user to consult these sites and know the Russian affiliation. “
Russia has consistently denied claims by the United States that it is behind online disinformation campaigns, calling similar claims last week a “lingering phobia.”
Websites identified by the State Department on Wednesday promoted unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was created in a lab as a biological weapon, billionaire Bill Gates plans to use the pandemic as an excuse to microchip people, and that the plans for a coronavirus vaccine are just a ploy for drug companies to make money. There is no evidence behind these claims.
The origin of the new coronavirus remains unknown, but the emerging scientific consensus is that humans were first infected in China, at an animal market in Wuhan. Executives around the world are investing in a vaccine as the best bet for beating the virus. And Gates has repeatedly dismissed the fact that he wants to start following people.
“Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation on health and science issues,” Gabrielle said. “The Russian disinformation ecosystem exploits fear and confusion.”
While building a following on Facebook and Twitter, some of the websites played down their links to Russian intelligence or withheld funding from the Kremlin, according to the State Department report.
One of the sites, Global Research, based in Canada, gathered an audience of nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook. The website regularly posts articles of fictional characters created by the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. The title of a recent Global Research article suggested the coronavirus originated in the United States, and it was shared by a Chinese spokesperson on Twitter before the website dismissed the unfounded claim.
The heads of government of China, Iran and Russia have regularly echoed each other on social media and in state media reports.
Another website, NewsFront, advertises itself as an “alternative” news source to the Western public, despite its announced funding from the Kremlin and registration with the Russian government, according to the State Department report. Facebook deleted dozens of NewsFront-related accounts and pages for inauthentic and coordinated behavior in April.
Most other websites are much more marginal, with only small social media followings and articles pushing coronavirus conspiracy theories that have only been shared by dozens.
Last week, U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Russian intelligence services were using another trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the pandemic.