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US officials link coronavirus disinformation campaign to Russian proxy accounts

Medical worker writes their colleague's name on a protective suit to aid in identification as they work at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Firday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Officials in the United States have said that thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm and misinformation about the COVID-19 crisis.

State Department officials involved in countering Russian disinformation said on February 22 that fake accounts are being used on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and are operating in multiple languages.

“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker was quoted as saying.

Reeker added that the Russia-linked accounts “are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response.”

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Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on February 22 denounced the U.S. claims as “a deliberate fake.”

The U.S. officials said the disinformation campaign has spread unfounded allegations that the virus that causes COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by the CIA “to wage economic war on China” or part of a Western effort “to push anti-China messages.”

‘Carte Blanche’ To Attack

According to a report prepared by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, several thousand online accounts – many of which have been previously tied to spreading Russia-friendly messages about the war in Syria or the so-called “yellow vest” protests in France – are posting “almost near identical” messages about the COVID-19 crisis. The accounts post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French and, the report says, can be traced back to Russian proxies.

The messages are often similar to reports featured on Russian state media outlets such as RT and Sputnik.

An unnamed State Department official was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying Russian operatives seem to have been given “carte blanche” to attack the United States.

U.S. officials believe the disinformation campaign is already making it more difficult for countries to respond to the health crisis, particularly those in Africa and Asia because of spreading fears of Western actions.