US officials: Russia behind spread of virus disinformation

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US officials say Russian intelligence services are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

The officials alleged Russian operatives have acted in seeking to exploit a crisis America is struggling to contain ahead of 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 the effort to reach American and Western audiences, according to the US government officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, center left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, talk to each other during their meeting on the sideline of a conference on Libya at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts the one-day conference of world powers on Sunday seeking to curb foreign military interference, solidify a cease-fire and help relaunch a political process to stop the chaos in the North African nation. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, third left, and Mike Pompeo, fourth right, Foreign Minister of the USA, attend a conference on Libya at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (Kay Nietfeld/DPA via AP, Pool)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 19: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (2L) are pictured before the beginning of the meeting at the Chancellery on January 19, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Leaders of nations and organizations linked to the current conflict are meeting to discuss measures towards reaching a consensus between the warring sides and ending hostilities. (Photo by Emmanuele Contini/Getty Images)
19 January 2020, Berlin: The family photo shows (front, l-r) Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Great Britain, Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Congo, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President of Egypt, Behind him (2nd prize) is a photo of the family. Ahmed Aboulgheit, Secretary General of the Arab League, Moussa Faki, Chairman of the African Union, Charles Michel President of the European Council, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD), Mike Pompeo, US Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, Director of Foreign Affairs in the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, met in the Federal Chancellery at the beginning of the Libya Conference for a family photo. The aim of the conference is a lasting ceasefire in the civil war country. Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa (Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson holds media availability during the G7 Foreign Minister meeting in Toronto, Ontario on April 23, 2018. - The Group of Seven industrialized nations presented a stern common front against Russian aggression April 22, 2018 at their foreign ministers conference in Toronto.But for all the talk of resisting the "malign activities" of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, Washington's European partners are still concerned that President Donald Trump will tear up the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Lars Hagberg / AFP) (Photo credit should read LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron during their meeting at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo during their meeting at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, reads his notes as Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom's CEO Alexei Miller stands next waiting for British Prime Minister David Cameron before the talks at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a cabinet meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Police officers detain a protester during a rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the Constitution in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Earlier this month a group of opposition activists called for a protest against the constitutional reform that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Police officers detain a protester during a rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the Constitution in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Earlier this month a group of opposition activists called for a protest against the constitutional reform that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to workers at the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch, Crimea, Monday, July 20, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Police officers block the road during a rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the Constitution in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Earlier this month a group of opposition activists called for a protest against the constitutional reform that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
British Prime minister Tony Blair watches as the Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves Downing Street after their meeting today Wednesday 5th October 2005. See PA Story DEFENCE Putin. Press Association Photo. Photo credit should read Stephan Rousseau/PA
Princess Michael of Kent chats with Russian President Putin at the Guildhall in London where he and Mrs Putina attended a banquet given by the Lord Mayor Of London.
British Prime Minister, David Cameron (centre) is joined by (left to right) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande, along with other G8 leaders for the second Plenary Session of the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
St.Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (right) and his assistant Vladimir Putin (left) attend a meeting of the St.Petersburg city legislature. Year 1993. Russia, St. Petersburg. Photo credit: Mikhail Razuvaev/Kommersant/Sipa USA
KRT WORLD NEWS STORY SLUGGED: RUSSIA-ELECTION KRT PHOTO BY YURI GRIPAS/KRT (KRT1) MOSCOW, RUSSIA March 26 -- Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, talk with journalists before voting at the polling station in downtown Moscow, March 26th. (Photo by KRT) AP PL KD BL 2000 (Horiz) (mvw) (Additional photos available on KRT Direct, KRT/PressLink or upon request)
Russia`s newly-elected president Vladimir Putin sits down for talks at 10, Downing Street, London, with Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister. Putin is on a brief visit to Britain and is to meet the Queen and government officials. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, right, and Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, left, listen to British chef Gordon Ramsay, who cooked lunch, at 10 Downing Street, in London. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II receives the President-elect of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, at Windsor Castle, during his first official engagement in London at the start of his visit to the UK. * 24/06/03 Queen Elizabeth II and the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, at Windsor Castle, as President Putin was arriving in Britain for the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the tsars. The former KGB secret service officer was staying at Buckingham Palace as the personal guest of the Queen, following a ceremonial welcome full of pomp and ceremony on London's Horse Guards Parade. (Photo by Fiona Hanson - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin lays a wreath at the Soviet war memorial in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, in London. Putin is in London for a one day visit, where he will have talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) meets Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) at the Kremlin. Mr Blair's visit to Russia and meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin is part of the coalition building process. * to identify those responsible for the attacks on the U.S. on September 11th. Blair and Putin are expected to discuss the evidence paper on prime suspect Osama bin Laden as well as the humanitarian efforts to be undertaken to help refugees. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
KRT US NEWS STORY SLUGGED: US-RUSSIA KRT PHOTO BY GEORGE BRIDGES/KRT (November 13) WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and President George W. Bush hold a news conference Tuesday, November 13, 2001. (Photo by KRT) NC KD BL 2001 (Horiz) (gsb)
The wife of Britain's Prime Minister Cherie Blair speaks with the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin on the steps of Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence near Wendover England. * ....The Russian President had arrived for a two day visit for talks.
Cherie Blair, left, with the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila as they chat with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair on the steps of Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence. * .... near Wendover England. The Russian President had arrived for a two day visit for talks.
Russian leader Vladamir Putin (left) shares a joke with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder whilst they watched a festival on the river in St Petersburg, Russia, to celebrate the city's tercentenary.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) is welcomed by the Prince of Wales at Heathrow Airport, London, at the start of their state visit. It is the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the Tsars.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive at Buckingham Palace, London, on the first day of his state visit. It is the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the Tsars.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive at Buckingham Palace, London, on the first day of his state visit. It is the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the Tsars.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) inspects the guard at Horse Guards Parade, London, on the first day of his state visit. It is the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the Tsars.
Queen Elizabeth II laughs with Prime Minister Tony Blair (3rd right) as she and Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) arrive at Horse Guards Parade, London, on the first day of his state visit. * It is the first state visit by a Russian leader since the days of the Tsars.
Queen Elizabeth II (right) and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (left) stand alongside Russias President Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, before a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. * Earlier, Mr Putin, who is on the first state visit by a Russian leader since 1874 when Tsar Alexander II came to Britain, had been delayed by 15 minutes aftes his motorcade was delayed by heavy traffic as it travelled from London s Heathrow Airport to Horse Guards Parade for the official welcoming ceremony.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila (centre) are greeted by The Lord Mayor of London Gavyn Arthur and the Lady Mayoress Carole Blackshaw (left) and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (right) on their arrival for the Lord Mayor's banquet at the Guildhall.
A Yeoman of the Guard, Tom Sharp, (left) looks on as Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila pass by during their visit to the Tower of London. * The Russian leader toured the historic attraction with his wife but did not have to queue to see the exhibits.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sits with the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Cherie, in Downing Street, London, during his official state visit to Britain.
--NO MAGS, NO SALES--KRT WORLD NEWS STORY SLUGGED: SUMMIT KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY SUNNY SUNG/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION (June 8) SEA ISLAND, GA -- President George W. Bush, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin look on as First Lady Laura Bush greets Lyudmila Putin at McGuirk House on Sea Island, Georgia, on Tuesday, June 8, 2004. (Photo by mvw) 2004
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dog Koni at his private dacha outside Moscow.
European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso (back row, from left) stands alongside other leaders of G8 countries; Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Gerhard Schroder of Germany, Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, Paul Martin of Canada, (front row, from left) George W Bush of USA, The Duke of Edinburgh, Jacques Chirac of France, Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Blair of UK and Vladimir Putin of Russia, at Gleneagles, Scotland.
G8 leaders (left to right): Angela Merkel (Germany), Tony Blair (UK), Jacques Chirac (France), and Vladimir Putin (Russia) pose for a family photo at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
With former President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush looking on, Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds up his catch Monday, July 2, 2007, with the help of fishing guide Billy Bush, during a morning outing at Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, Maine. (Photo by Eric Draper/The White House/MCT/Sipa USA)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin leaves after speaking at a Russia 2018 press conference at the Zurich Exhibition Centre, Zurich.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, during a visit to the Moscow Sports and Recreation Complex, took part in a joint training of teams on wrestling, judo and sambo. December 22, 2010. Russia, St. Petersburg. Photo credit: Vasily Shaposhnikov/Kommersant/Sipa USA
Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin (front left) at The White House in Moscow, Russia.
Prime Minister David Cameron greets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the steps of 10 Downing Street in London, ahead of talks.
Police officers detain a protester during a rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the Constitution in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Earlier this month a group of opposition activists called for a protest against the constitutional reform that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Pyotr Fradkov, head of the Promsvyazbank bank speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, back to a camera, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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The information had previously been classified, but officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it. They said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and 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 on Tuesday published some 150 articles about the pandemic response, including coverage aimed either at propping up Russia or denigrating the US.

Among the headlines that caught the attention of US officials were "Russia's Counter Covid-19 Aid to America Advances Case for Détente," which suggested Russia had given urgent and substantial aid to the US to fight the pandemic.

Trump
President Donald Trump is in deep trouble in opinion polls ahead of November's election (Evan Vucci/AP)

Another read: "Beijing Believes Covid-19 is a Biological Weapon", which amplified statements by the Chinese.

The disclosure comes as the spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern heading into November's presidential election as US officials look to avoid a repeat of interference in the 2016 contest.

Ahead of that poll a Russian troll farm launched a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and to favour then-candidate Donald Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The US government's chief counter-intelligence executive warned in a rare public statement on Friday about Russia's continued use of internet trolls to advance their goals.

Even apart from politics, the twin crises buffeting the country and much of the world — the pandemic and race relations and protests — have offered fertile territory for misinformation or outright falsehoods.

Mr Trump himself has come under scrutiny for sharing misinformation about a disproven drug for treating the coronavirus in videos that were taken down by Twitter and Facebook.

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.

Election 2020 Joe Biden
Mr Trumps election rival Joe Biden has been denigrated by some of the misinformation US official say has been spread by Russian sources (Andrew Harnik/AP)

However, some of the coverage appeared to denigrate Mr Trump's Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and called to mind Russian efforts in 2016 to exacerbate race relations in America and to drive corruption allegations against US political figures.

Though US officials have warned before about the spread of disinformation tied to the pandemic, they went further on Tuesday.

They singled 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.

Officials say the sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort 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.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump's approval ratings have nosedived through the pandemic (Evan Vucci/AP)

An email to InfoRos was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Beyond the coronavirus, the campaign has included a focus on US news, global politics and topical stories of the moment.

A headline on Tuesday on InfoRos.ru about the unrest roiling American cities read "Chaos in the Blue Cities".

It accompanied a story lamenting how New Yorkers raised 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 "Ukrainegate" — a reference to stories surrounding Mr Biden's son Hunter's former ties to a Ukraine gas company — "keeps unfolding with renewed vigour".

US officials have identified two of the people believed to be behind the sites' operations. Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously held leadership roles at InfoRos but have also served in a GRU unit specialising in military psychological intelligence and maintain deep contacts there, the officials said.

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