The novel coronavirus outbreak, that has infected more than 75,000 people and claimed over 2,000 lives, has been widely used as a tool to advance misinformation and conspiracy theories. The issue gets more complex, when a country's media machinery joins in, thus amplifying such theories.
The US department officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation, called out its arch-rival Russia, accusing it of promoting disinformation campaign, aimed at maligning USA's image around the world.
US blames Russia for coronavirus misinformation
Stories such as coronavirus is an American tool to wage an 'economic-war' against China, or that the virus is a 'biological weapon developed by CIA', are doing rounds on social media and several Russian news portals. Even Microsoft's co-founder Bill Gates, who has spent millions of dollars on various global health programs, has been accused of involvement in the epidemic.
The US State officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation told AFP that several fake profiles in different languages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are propagating false information related to the virus outbreak.
"Russia's intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns", said Philip Reeker, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia. "By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response", he further added.
According to a report prepared for the State Department's Global Engagement Center, several thousand social media accounts, which earlier furthered Russian backed messages on events, such as the Syrian war, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile's mass demonstrations, are posting "almost near-identical" messages about the epidemic. These aren't run by bots, but by humans and post identical messages at the same time in different languages, or carry similar messages to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, the report said.
Russian state-backed media too pushed the misinformation. "In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy web sites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes," said Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, head of the Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.
Russia denies accusation
On Saturday, Russia denied allegations levelled against it by the US. "It is a deliberate fake", Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told TASS.
Russian misinformation in the past
In the 1980s, Moscow was accused of the disinformation campaign that US scientists had created the HIV virus. Russia has also been accused of meddling in 2016 US Presidential elections through social media manipulations. Similar reports have resurfaced in 2020, accusing the Eurasian nation of backing Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders' and US President Donald Trump's campaigns, for the 2020 US Presidential elections.