Russia spreads disinformation about coronavirus as fears grow worldwide

Salaam Times and AFP


Tourists wearing protective face masks visit the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, Italy, on February 24 during the usual period of the Carnival festivities. They have been cancelled the past two days because of a coronavirus outbreak. [Andrea Pattaro/AFP]

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.


A worker from the Korea Pest Control Association, wearing protective gear, sprays disinfectant to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Seoul on February 24. [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]


Russia uses the combination of state-run media and thousands of social media accounts to sow panic, fear and discord by spreading disinformation online. [File]

"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.

Do you like this article?

11 Comment

Comment Policy * Denotes required field 1500 / 1500



The globe is being contrived by a miscreant group for a single person. The world is led based on an ominous program. Nothing is accidental: SARS, MIRS, influenza, and similarly Corona (covid-19). A major plague or second black disease is on the way, and it is the most dangerous of all times, which will interpret all the past prophesies. All these are for leading the world towards a new global order, and the single person, Jewish antichrist will manage the new order. The solution is that Jihad should be taken out to Israel in order to prevent world crisis and human disaster. Otherwise, Israel will start human holocaust, whose fear was felt by the angels from the beginning of the human creation. The angels said that human will corrupt the earth; that is, the victimization of human being is for the globalization of Israel.


You have written in a way which shows you are not a journalist, but you are part of the case.


We would believe if a neutral media said this matter. But you yourselves drink water from the well of America. Your speeches themselves convey that you tell lies. You really create and pread rumors. You are not an unbiased media.


If America is not involved, then Israel must have been involved. Just once look at the corona-virus spreading chart. Do you see Israel? No, I have not seen it yet. Indeed, it is a personal opinion. But anyway, whether the people should know or should not know who did this, you know very well. In the length of the history of humanity, God’s promises have always been implemented for the sake of curse in a violent way that one can think about it. So, be afraid of God, and love humanity. Love one another. Otherwise, God clearly warned in Chapter of Dukhan in the Quran. Tthose who do not understand should go and study the chapter and your time will not be wasted.


How much did you get for writing these bullshits? Well, it is clear that this is the work of America. A book which was published in 2010 wrote that in 2020 a virus would spread from China. The name of the book is The Eyes of the Darkness.


Your text was garbage, just wasted my time.


Your eyes and brain both are damaged. The country and spies who always make troubles for the people is not Russia but it is America. The one which interferes in the internal and external affairs of all countries from the East to West is America. The one which commits hidden crimes is America. The one which has created misery in the world is America, and the writer of this report is also a pro-American person. Have a little fear from Allah, and do not get scared from America.


Obviously, Coronavirus was spread, and the cause of its spreading is economic war.


This is an economic war launched by damned America to weaken the economy of the Asian continent.
Why did Donald Trump go to India? What was the reason? The reason is because India is good at medicine and discovered the Corona- antivirus. He went to India to tell them not to spread antivirus. If not, he wouldn’t have gone to India.


Coronavirus is the work of America.