WASHINGTON – Russian intelligence services are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis that America is struggling to contain ahead of the presidential election in November, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
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 reaching American and Western audiences, U.S. government officials said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The information had previously been classified, but 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 singled out Tuesday 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 was “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.
Officials described the Russian disinformation as part of an ongoing and persistent effort to advance false narratives and cause confusion. They 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.
Though U.S. officials have warned before about the spread of disinformation tied to the pandemic, they went further Tuesday by singling out a particular information agency that is registered in Russia, InfoRos and that 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.
The sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort that U.S. officials liken to money laundering, where stories in well-written English – and often with pro-Russian sentiment and anti-U.S. 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.
Beyond the coronavirus, there's also a focus on America, global politics and topical stories of the moment.
A headline Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest roiling major American cities read “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” accompanying a story that lamented how New Yorkers who grew up in the tough-on-crime approach of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg “must 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's former ties to a Ukraine gas company – “keeps unfolding with renewed vigors.”
Two individuals who have held leadership roles at InfoRos, identified Tuesday as Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have served in a GRU unit specializing in military psychological intelligence and maintain contacts there, the officials said.