MOSCOW (AP) — U.S. officials say Russian intelligence officers are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic through English-language websites, trying to exploit a crisis that America is struggling to contain before the presidential election in November.
Two Russians who have held senior roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort meant to reach American and other Western audiences, according to U.S. government officials. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday.
Russian officials on Wednesday rejected the accusations as “conspiracy theories” and a “persistent phobia.” One of the sites singled out by the U.S. posted a response denouncing as “categorically false” the American assertions that it was linked to the Russian military intelligence service or was involved in propaganda.
The information had previously been classified, but U.S. officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it. Officials said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and to expose what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.
Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, the websites published about 150 articles about the pandemic response, including coverage aimed either at propping up Russia or denigrating the U.S.
Among the headlines that caught the attention of U.S. officials were “Russia’s Counter COVID-19 Aid to America Advances Case for Détente,” which suggested that Russia had given urgent and substantial aid to the U.S. to fight the pandemic, and “Beijing Believes COVID-19 is a Biological Weapon,” which amplified statements by the Chinese.
The spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern heading into the November vote. U.S. officials want to avoid a repeat of the 2016 contest, when a Russian troll farm carried out a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and to favor then-candidate Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. government’s chief counterintelligence executive warned in a rare public statement Friday about Russia’s continued use of internet trolls to advance its goals.
The pandemic and race relations and protests across the U.S. have offered fertile territory for misinformation or outright falsehoods. Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation about a disproved drug for treating the coronavirus in videos that were taken down by Twitter and Facebook.
Officials did not say whether the effort behind these particular websites was directly related to the November election, though some of the coverage appeared to denigrate Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and called to mind Russian efforts in 2016 to exacerbate race relations in America and spread corruption allegations against U.S. political figures.
U.S. officials have warned before about the spread of disinformation tied to the pandemic. But on Tuesday, they went further by singling out a particular information agency that is registered in Russia, InfoRos. It operates a series of websites — InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org and OneWorld.press — that have leveraged the pandemic to promote anti-Western objectives and to spread disinformation.
Officials say the sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated way that they liken to money laundering, where stories in well-written English — and often with pro-Russian sentiment — are cycled through other news sources to conceal their origin and enhance the legitimacy of the information.
The sites also amplify stories that originate elsewhere, the government officials said.
An email to InfoRos on Tuesday was not immediately returned. OneWorld rejected the allegations as “categorically false” in a statement posted Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the allegations “some kind of a persistent phobia.” He said the Russian press was continuing to cover the coronavirus and that there was “no need to blame objective and quality work of the media.”
A headline Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest roiling American cities read “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” accompanying a story that lamented how New Yorkers who grew up under the tough-on-crime approach of former Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “and have zero street smarts” must now “adapt to life in high-crime urban areas.”
Another story carried the headline of “Ukrainian Trap for Biden,” and claimed that “Ukrainegate” — a reference to stories surrounding Biden’s son Hunter and his former ties to a Ukrainian gas company — “keeps unfolding with renewed vigor.”
U.S. officials have identified two of the people believed to be behind the sites’ operations. The men, Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously held leadership roles at InfoRos but have also served in a GRU unit specializing in military psychological intelligence and maintain deep contacts there, the officials said.
InfoRos and One World’s ties to the Russian state have attracted scrutiny in the past from European disinformation analysts.
In 2019, a European Union task force that studies disinformation campaigns identified One World as “a new addition to the pantheon of Moscow-based disinformation outlets.” The task force noted that One World’s content often parrots the Russian state agenda on issues including the war in Syria.
A report published last month by a second, nongovernmental organization, Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab, examined links between InfoRos and One World to Russian military intelligence. The researchers identified technical clues tying their websites to Russia and identified some financial connections between InfoRos and the government.
“InfoRos is evolving in a shady grey zone, where regular information activities are mixed with more controversial actions that could be quite possibly linked to the Russian state’s information operations,” the report’s authors concluded.
On its English-language Facebook page, InfoRos describes itself as an “Information agency: world through the eyes of Russia.”
Separately, the cybersecurity firm FireEye this week published a report on a sophisticated disinformation campaign seeking to discredit the NATO alliance that chiefly targeted the public in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
While researchers found no concrete evidence of authorship, “the activity is very consistent with Russian interests,” said John Hultquist, FireEye’s threat intelligence chief. “This is an attack on the United States and its allies.”
Using fabricated journalist personas and breaking into websites to plant bogus stories, the disinformation campaign spread lies, including that German soldiers had vandalized a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania and that U.S. troops were involved in a carjacking there, FireEye reported.
It was also behind a forged letter purporting to have been penned by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggesting the alliance planned to withdraw from Lithuania due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods used in the campaign, particularly breaking into websites to plant disinformation, could be exploited to try to disrupt the November elections in the U.S., Hultquist said.
Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Boston and David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.