Russian intelligence officers are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis the United States is struggling to contain before the November presidential election, US officials said Tuesday.
Two Russians who have played important roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service, known as GRU, have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort targeting American and Western audiences, US government officials said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak in public.
The information had previously been classified, but authorities said they had downgraded it so they could discuss it more freely. Authorities said they were doing so now to sound the alarm over particular websites and expose a connection between the sites and Russian intelligence.
Between the end of May and the beginning of July, one of the officials said, a trio of websites published about 150 articles on the response to the pandemic, including coverage aimed at propping up Russia and denigrating the United States.
Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials are “The Case of Russia’s Aid Against COVID-19 Against the United States to Stop”, which suggested that Russia had provided urgent and substantial aid to the US To combat the pandemic, and “Beijing believes that COVID-19 is a biological weapon.”
The disclosure comes as the spread of disinformation, including Russia, is an urgent concern ahead of the November presidential election, as U.S. officials seek to avoid a repeat of the 2016 contest, when Russia launched a sneaky campaign on social media. to divide US public opinion, then-candidate Donald Trump. The top US counterintelligence official warned in a public statement Friday about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance its goals.
Even apart from politics, the twin crises that plague the country and much of the world (pandemics and racial relations and protests) have offered fertile ground for disinformation or to combat falsehoods.
Authorities described the disinformation as part of a continuing and persistent Russian effort to cause confusion. They did not say whether the effort was directly related to the November election, although some of the coverage on the websites appeared to denigrate Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The stories recall 2016’s Russian efforts to exacerbate race relations in the U.S. and drive corruption allegations against American political figures.
US officials on Tuesday highlighted a news agency, InfoRos.ru, which operates a trio of websites (InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org and OneWorld.press) that they say have taken advantage of the pandemic to promote anti-Western targets and spread the word. disinformation. .
The sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort that officials compare to money laundering, where stories in well-written English, and often with pro-Russian and anti-American sentiment, go through other news sources to hide their origin and improve the legitimacy of the information.
The sites also amplify stories that originate elsewhere, government officials said.
The sites also focus on contemporary politics. A Tuesday headline on InfoRos.ru about the unrest stirring up major US cities read “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” accompanied by a story lamenting how New Yorkers who grew up experiencing the tough approach to crime from the Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “must adapt to life in high crime urban areas.”
Another story bore the headline “Ukrainian Trap for Biden,” and claimed that “Ukrainegate,” a reference to stories surrounding Biden’s son Hunter’s former ties to a Ukrainian gas company, “continues to unfold with renewed vigors. “
Two people who have also held leadership roles at InfoRos, identified Tuesday as Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously served in a GRU unit specializing in military psychological intelligence and maintain deep contacts there, officials said.
InfoRos and One World’s ties to the Russian state have drawn scrutiny in the past from disinformation European analysts.
In 2019, a European Union task force studying disinformation campaigns identified One World as “a new addition to the Moscow-based disinformation media pantheon.” The task force noted that One World’s content often repeats the Russian state agenda on issues like the war in Syria.
A report released last month by a second non-governmental organization, Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab, examined the links between InfoRos and One World with Russian military intelligence. The researchers identified technical clues linking their websites to Russia and identified some financial connections between InfoRos and the government.
“InfoRos is evolving in a shady gray area, where regular information activities are mixed with more controversial actions that could possibly be linked to the information operations of the Russian state,” the report’s authors concluded.
On its English Facebook page, InfoRos describes itself as an “Information Agency: the world through the eyes of Russia”.