Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa Bay news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Charlotte news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

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.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.