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US Accuses Russia of Spreading Fear, Panic on Coronavirus

In this photo taken on July 24, 2017, a car passes the building of the Federal Security Service (Soviet KGB successor) in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, Russia.
In this photo taken on July 24, 2017, a car passes the building of the Federal Security Service (Soviet KGB successor) in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, Russia.

The United States is accusing Russia of opening up its entire disinformation playbook to prey on growing fears about the spread of the coronavirus.

Moscow’s effort, underway for weeks, according to officials, includes the use of state-run media outlets, fake news websites and “swarms” of fake online personas to churn out fabricated information in at least five languages.

"We've been watching the narratives that are being pushed out — false narratives around coronavirus," Lea Gabrielle, coordinator for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), told lawmakers Thursday. "We saw the entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation at play."

Gabrielle declined to go into detail about the Russian disinformation efforts, saying she did not want to risk giving them any credence.

Bill Gates?

But other officials have said the Russian disinformation operation centers on three narratives — that the coronavirus is actually a bioweapon; that the CIA created the virus to hurt China; and that the virus is somehow the brainchild of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Multiple requests to the Russian Embassy in Washington for comment went unanswered. But Russia has repeatedly denied other U.S. allegations regarding disinformation campaigns, such as charges Moscow has repeatedly sought to meddle in U.S. elections.

Gabrielle said the GEC has been working with the State Department’s public diplomacy wing to try to expose and counter Moscow’s efforts, but cautioned it has not been easy.

“There’s a lot of disinformation,” she told lawmakers. "It's not just about the individual platforms. It's the overall, big picture that we're seeing develop and how adversaries are using the social media landscape. ... I hope that all actors will act in the most responsible manner to support people who are scared around the world in the midst of this crisis.”

Social media companies don't agree

Making the situation more challenging, some social media companies say they have yet to find evidence on their own of a massive Russian coronavirus influence operation.

"At present, we’re not seeing significant coordinated platform manipulation efforts,” Twitter posted in a blog Wednesday. “However, we will remain vigilant and have invested substantially in our proactive abilities."

When contacted by VOA, Twitter confirmed it had been in contact with the GEC and has now been briefed, in broad strokes, on the center’s findings.

Queries to Facebook went unanswered.

As for the Kremlin’s coronavirus campaign, U.S. officials believe Russia is getting what it wants.

"The fact is that many audiences around the world do believe these lies,” Jani Vujica, the GEC's director of analytics and research, told an audience in Washington last month about the coronavirus crisis. "For some, it reinforces their views of the West. For others, it shapes these views."