POST TIME: 24 February, 2020 12:21:56 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 24 February, 2020 12:22:17 AM
Russia-linked campaign fueling coronavirus alarm, say US officials
Claims circulating online say virus a US effort to “wage economic war on China”
AFP, Washington

Russia-linked campaign fueling coronavirus alarm, say US officials

Thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the new coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic, US officials say. The disinformation campaign promotes unfounded conspiracy theories that the United States is behind the COVID-19 outbreak, in an apparent bid to damage the US image around the world by seizing on health concerns.

State Department officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation told AFP that false personas are being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages. "Russia's intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns," said Philip Reeker, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia.

"By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response," he said.

The claims that have been circulating online in recent weeks include allegations that the virus is a US effort to "wage economic war on China," that it is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA or part of a Western-led effort "to push anti-China messages."

US individuals including Microsoft co-founder Bill

Gates, a philanthropist who has spent billions on global health programs, have also been falsely accused of involvement in the virus.

Russia on Saturday denied the accusations, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling the TASS state news agency: “This is a deliberately false story.”

The disinformation campaign was identified by US monitors in mid-January after Chinese officials announced a third death from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

More than 2,340 people have since died, mostly in China. The number of cases exceeds 76,000 and the virus has reached more than 25 countries, with deaths in Italy, Iran and South Korea, forcing public officials to close schools and impose restrictions.

Disinformation and false theories about the novel coronavirus are considered a serious threat.

Several thousand online accounts — previously identified for airing Russian-backed messages on major events such as the war in Syria, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile’s mass demonstrations — are posting “almost near identical” messages about the epidemic, according to a report prepared for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and seen by AFP.

The accounts — run by humans, not bots — post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French and can be linked back to Russian proxies, or carry similar messages to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, it said.

Russian state-funded media started pushing anti-Western messages about the cause of the virus on January 20, with operators of the social media accounts beginning to post globally the following day, US officials say.