Mar 19, 2020 - Health

Russia goes after coronavirus in latest health misinformation push

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Russia is already spreading misinformation about the coronavirus throughout the West, according to digital forensics experts and government officials.

Why it matters: The most effective misinformation plays into existing fears, especially around health, safety and well-being. Russia often takes advantage of real-world health crises to sow discord among Americans.

Driving the news: A document sent to European lawmakers Monday by European Union officials asserts that Russia is carrying out a “significant disinformation campaign” in an effort to sow discord and panic in Western nations over the coronavirus.

  • According to Reuters, which obtained the nine-page document, the efforts span multiple Western languages, including English, Spanish and French, and aim to cause public confusion and anxiety over what's happening with the virus.
  • The examples included false claims that an American solider serving in Lithuania had been hospitalized with the virus, per Reuters.

In the U.S. specifically, a top State Department official told Congress in testimony reported by The Washington Post last week that Russia is behind “swarms of online, false personas” spreading misinformation about the epidemic on social media.

  • The official, Lea Gabrielle, the coordinator of the government’s Global Engagement Center said the “entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play” and that Russia is aiming to “take advantage of a health crisis, where people are terrified worldwide, to try to advance their priorities,” per the Post.

And a report from the Digital Forensic Research Lab finds that Russia has been planting narratives that place blame for the coronavirus on the U.S.

  • "Narratives blaming the United States for the coronavirus outbreak first appeared on fringe pro-Kremlin outlets, and are spreading to well-established Kremlin media, Russian politicians, and social media platforms including YouTube and VKontakte (VK)," according to the report.
  • "Fringe pro-Kremlin outlets have accused the United States of using bioweapons against China, claiming the U.S. is using economic and military tools to pressure its competitor China," it says.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have not yet confirmed that they have found any coordinated, Russian-backed misinformation efforts around the coronavirus on their platforms.

  • But last week, Facebook and Twitter did say that they had taken down Russian-backed troll accounts targeted at Americans.
  • The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any allegations of coordinated disinformation campaigns.

Be smart: "Russia has a tendency to use news cycle topics as an opportunity to sow disinformation to achieve their geopolitical aims," Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council, told me in an interview.

  • "Health care is a topic that people relate to viscerally and on an emotional level which makes it a very vulnerable topic to disinformation. Now there are actors on a geopolitical level that spread disinformation as a strategy, like Russia, and we've seen consistently focused in many ways, opportunistically, on health related issues," he said.

Flashback: Last year, the New York Times reported that RT, the Russia-backed television network based in the U.S., had been peddling unverified stories claiming that 5G wireless technology can be linked to cancer, autism, Alzheimer's and other health problems.

Preying on health-related fears has been part of Russia's playbook for a long time.

  • "One of the original examples of Russian disinformation around health care dates back to the narrative they spread about the CIA creating the AIDS epidemic in the early 90's," Brookie said. "Or the coronavirus today. It's all false but it all of it kind of drives directly towards Russia's geo-political interests.

Social media companies have in the past struggled to police misinformation about health care-related issues, because some of it is spread by well-intentioned people who are unknowingly spreading false information online or fundamentally believe in unproven, non-scientific cures.

The bottom line: Russian attempts to sow discord often occur during breaking news situations. With so much misinformation already going viral about the coronavirus, it's a perfect opportunity for Russia to cause more confusion while avoiding detection.

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Why it matters: The strategy is a clear departure from Beijing's previous disinformation tactics and signals its increasingly aggressive approach to managing its image internationally.

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