Russian intelligence agencies drive disinformation on pandemic

WASHINGTON – Russian intelligence services have been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to recently declassified intelligence, material demonstrating how Moscow continues to try to influence Americans as the elections approach.

Russian military intelligence, known as GRU, has used its ties to a Russian government information center, InfoRos, and other websites to drive disinformation and propaganda in English about the pandemic, such as amplifying Chinese false claims that the virus It was created by the United States Army and articles saying that Russia’s medical assistance could bring a new detente with Washington.

The disinformation efforts are a refinement of what Russia tried to do in 2016. The fake social media accounts and bots used by the Internet Research Agency and other Russian-backed groups to amplify fake articles have been relatively easy to remove. But it is much more difficult to stop the spread of such articles appearing on websites that appear legitimate, according to outside experts.

“Russian intelligence agencies are taking a more central role in the disinformation efforts that Russia is now promoting,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance to Secure Democracy. “It is not the forceful force” of operations mounted by the Internet Research Agency.

Two US officials described the recently declassified intelligence, but did not provide the underlying reports on the activities of the GRU and SVR, the Moscow equivalent of the CIA. They discussed information about the condition of anonymity.

Last week, intelligence officials warned of efforts by Russia, China and Iran to interfere with the elections. While Democrats criticized the warning for the lack of details, officials promised to release more information.

While the disinformation efforts outlined Tuesday by US officials focused on the pandemic, security researchers said Russia continued to push disinformation on a variety of issues.

The government’s allegations came when Mandiant Threat Intelligence, part of cybersecurity firm FireEye, reported that it had detected a parallel campaign of influence in Eastern Europe with the intention of discrediting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including disinformation about the coronavirus. While the Mandiant report did not specifically name Russia and its intelligence agencies, it noted that the campaign was “aligned with Russian security interests” in an effort to undermine NATO activities.

Facebook has started tagging stories that appear on state-sponsored news sites like RT and Sputnik. But it’s harder for social media companies to identify and tag news articles that are posted on conspiracy-minded sites, according to experts.

Many of the pieces created by Russian intelligence were published on InfoRos, a site controlled by the Russian government, and OneWorld.Press, a nominally independent site that, according to U.S. officials, had links to U.S. GRU officials, according to other sites, like GlobalResearch. ca, regularly amplifies the GRU’s propaganda, but officials have not directly linked it to Russian intelligence.

United States government officials mainly described the pandemic-focused misinformation, but also described the ties between Russian intelligence and a group of experts who had published articles on politics.

The Strategic Culture Foundation is run by another Russian intelligence agency, the SVR, according to two US officials. The foundation and its ties to Russian intelligence are also being investigated by the FBI, according to another official.

In May, the foundation published a critical article with Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration official who lost a primary race in June in New York for a seat in Congress.

Farkas said the Russians have continued to repeat their efforts since 2016 to try to influence the elections.

“They want to sow dissent and reduce confidence among Americans in our democracy and make democracy look bad around the world,” he said. “They want to prevent people who are tough on Russia from coming to power.”

Michael Averko, a contributor to the foundation, did not respond to a request for comment, but said in a recent mass email to reporters that he had been visited by the FBI. Mr. Averko said he told the FBI that he knew nothing about ties between the foundation and Russian intelligence, but doubted they existed.

Neither OneWorld.Press nor returned requests for comment. But OneWorld has denied that it disseminates uninformed information or is an arm of the Russian state, and insisted that it was not responsible for what people wrote on its platform.

“It is not ‘foreign interference’ that people share their views on their own countries or the rest of the world on a foreign platform,” the site wrote in response to a BBC report.

American intelligence officials said the GRU’s psychological warfare unit, known as Unit 54777 or the 72nd Special Services Center, was behind the propaganda campaigns that were often devised to hide Moscow’s role in its creation. A 2018 report in The Washington Post linked InfoRos to GRU Unit 54777.

United States intelligence reports have identified two Russians, Denis V. Tyurin and Aleksandr G. Starunskiy, with ties to the GRU and who make sure that InfoRos and and OneWorld pressure the messages and disinformation drafted by intelligence officials. .

Russian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Tyurin and Mr. Starunskiy, US officials said, were essentially involved in a type of information laundering, similar to money laundering. They take the messages from Russian intelligence and spread them on InfoRos, OnePress or another website.

The material created by the GRU is then collected by other websites that extend it further. Those websites are often on the fringes of the web, while some, like Global Research, have a large following, US officials said.

The stories powered by Russian intelligence appear to be written by native English speakers and do not stand out as products of a campaign of foreign influence, US officials said.

From late May to early July, the Russian intelligence-backed effort published about 150 articles on the pandemic, US officials said.

OneWorld published articles on how the pandemic was an experiment to manipulate the world. InfoRos, as well as the Tass news agency, published an article saying the United States was using the pandemic to impose its world view, according to US officials. released reports on Beijing’s claim that the coronavirus was originally an American biological weapon.

While the specific sites may not receive much traffic, US officials believe the disinformation written by Russian military intelligence is amplified, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.

Following the influence of Russian disinformation is difficult. While the documents stolen and released by Russian intelligence agencies had a major effect on the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, the posts on social media do not appear to have been as consistent.

But the propaganda and disinformation posted on alternative news sites, such as OneWorld or Global Research, may have more traction, some researchers believe.

“What we have seen in GRU operations is that the social media component is often a failure, but the narrative content they write is shared more widely across the niche media ecosystem,” said Renee DiResta, manager. Research at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who has studied GRU and InfoRos ties and propaganda work.

The EU’s DisinfoLab, an independent non-profit organization, has previously linked OneWorld, InfoRos and a site in French to Russian propaganda efforts. Part of that misinformation focused on Allied troops spreading the coronavirus, accusations similar to those in the new Mandiant report.

Mandiant called the group of threats it found “Ghostwriter” as it was based on fake news articles or made-up letters and quotes that appeared to originate from local politicians or military officials. It was based on articles written by what she called “at least 14 inauthentic characters,” that is, reporters or bloggers who were invented by the creators of the campaign of influence. The articles were published by pro-Russian sites like, which US intelligence officials have also been examining.

In one example, a manufactured letter submitted as written by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg perpetuates the false claim that the alliance planned to leave Lithuania as the pandemic spread. Another episode involved a local Lithuanian news site that was hacked, and the attackers published an article falsely claiming that German troops had desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Kaunas, a city in central Lithuania.