MOSCOW -- Thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts have launched a co-ordinated effort to spread conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus just as fears of a global pandemic deepened Monday (February 24) with a growing number of deaths in Iran and the worsening of other outbreaks across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
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.
False personae are being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages, US officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation told AFP.
"Russia's intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns," said acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker.
"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 US Central Intelligence Agency or part of a Western-led effort "to push anti-China messages".
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 epicentre of the outbreak.
The official death toll in China -- where the virus emerged late last year -- is at almost 2,600.
But the spread of the virus in other parts of the world has accelerated over the past week, with Iran, South Korea and Italy emerging as the worst new hot spots.
Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait also announced on Monday their first cases of the virus, bringing the total number of countries with infections above 30.
Same accounts previously posted about Ukraine, Syria
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 Centre and seen by AFP.
The accounts, run by humans rather than by bots, post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French and can be linked back to Russian proxies or carry messages similar to stories from 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 said.
"In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy websites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes," said Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, head of the Global Engagement Centre, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.
During many past news events, the accounts would post actively for up to 72 hours. But messages about the new coronavirus have been uploaded every day over the past month -- a sign, US officials said, of Russia's investment in a story unlikely to disappear soon from the headlines.
"In the Russian doctrine of information confrontation, this is classic," said another official from the Global Engagement Centre.
Earlier in February, Facebook said it purged dozens of accounts linked to Russian military intelligence in the latest effort to root out manipulation and disinformation on the social network.
The Russia-based network, which included 78 Facebook accounts and four on Instagram, focused mainly on Ukraine and neighbouring countries and posted content about the conflict in Syria, ethnic tensions in Crimea and the downing of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine in 2014.
Facebook last October said it had taken down a number of accounts tied to Russia whose owners were attempting to meddle in the 2020 US presidential elections.
Those accounts reused messages from the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which targeted US audiences in the 2016 presidential election.
Russia deepening the crisis
The latest Russian disinformation campaign is making it harder to respond to the epidemic, with the public becoming suspicious of the Western response, according to Washington.
If countries do not quickly mobilise against the virus, "this outbreak could go in any direction", World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned.
Russian operatives appeared to have been given "carte blanche" to spread disinformation, said an unidentified US State Department official.
"Whether or not a particular theme is being directed at the highest levels doesn't matter. It's the fact that they have freelance ability to operate in this space to do whatever damage they can, which could have seismic implications," said the official.