US authorities say Russian intelligence services are using a trio of English-language websites to spread information about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis the United States is struggling to contain before the November presidential election.
Two Russians who have held high-level roles in the Moscow military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort reaching the American and Western public, US government officials said Tuesday. 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 what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.
Between the end of May and the beginning of July, one of the officials said, the websites published about 150 articles on the response to the pandemic, including coverage aimed at propping up Russia or denigrating the United States.
Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials was one that read “The Case of Aid Against Covid-19 Against the United States for the Defense of Russia,” suggesting that Russia had provided urgent and substantial to the US to combat the pandemic. “Beijing believes that Covid-19 is a biological weapon,” which amplified the Chinese statements, was another.
The disclosure occurs when the spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern ahead of the November presidential election. American officials are seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2016 race, when Russia launched a sneak campaign on social media to divide American public opinion and favor then-candidate Donald Trump over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The executive head of counterintelligence for the US government warned in a rare public statement on 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. Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation about an unproven drug to treat coronavirus in videos that were removed by Twitter and Facebook.
Authorities described Russian disinformation as part of a continuous 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, although part of the coverage seemed to denigrate Joe Biden, and recalls 2016 Russian efforts to exacerbate race relations in the United States and boost corruption allegations against United States political figures.
Although US officials have previously warned of the spread of pandemic-related misinformation, they went further on Tuesday by highlighting a Russian-registered private information agency InfoRos that operates a number of websites: InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org and OneWorld.press, which have taken advantage of the pandemic to promote anti-western goals and spread disinformation.
An email to InfoRos was not immediately answered Tuesday.
The sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort that American 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 its origin. and improve the legitimacy of the information.
The sites also amplify stories that originate elsewhere, government officials said.
Beyond the coronavirus, there is also a focus on the United States, global politics, and current affairs of the moment.
A headline Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest stirring up major American cities says “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” which accompanies a story lamenting how New Yorkers grew up in the mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s focus on the fight against crime “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 related 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”.