Russia using coronavirus fears to spread misinformation in Western countries

Russia is deploying a misinformation campaign in Western countries designed to sow discord and concern around the spread of coronavirus, according to the European Union (EU). 

An internal document from the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), first reported on by Reuters, warned that Russia was using the coronavirus pandemic to spread chaos through misinformation.

“With the spread of COVID-19 we have seen a flurry of info, myths and disinformation about it – they are coming from various sources, not only from one, although disinformation efforts coming from Russia, linked to Russia or to clearly pro-Kremlin outlets have noticeably picked up,” Peter Stano, the spokesperson for the EEAS, said during a press conference on Wednesday about the document’s findings. 

Stano told The Hill in an emailed statement that while the document cannot be shared, the European Commission is “aware of an increasing number of false information about the COVID-19 outbreak appearing in public discourse. We are concerned that some of them can lead to public harm (e.g. false claims that drinking bleach cures the virus) or abuse the situation for material gain (e.g. elevated prices for soap that kills coronavirus germs).”

The new concerns around Russian misinformation comes after European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová met with top representatives of tech groups including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter on March 3 to discuss the spread of coronavirus disinformation.

According to Stano, Jourová will meet with the tech company representatives in early April to receive updates on fighting misinformation. 

Stano emphasized that the EU is taking steps to promote “authoritative content” and take down content flagged by fact-checkers as “false or misleading,” along with encouraging EU citizens to get information on the coronavirus from groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The effort mirrors an initiative in the United States, where U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios met with officials from the same tech groups last week to hash out how Silicon Valley can assist in fighting coronavirus and halting misinformation. 

Two top U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday also warned of hacking and misinformation campaigns from countries such as Russia and China.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the co-chairs of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, told The Hill in a statement that they believed the U.S. was engaged in a “war” against foreign hackers and those spreading misinformation around coronavirus.

“The U.S. is fighting a multi-front war amid this pandemic, including against the virus itself and against foreign adversaries attempting to undercut and hinder our response capabilities and sow discord,” the lawmakers said. 

They emphasized that both China and Russia were using their resources to push misinformation about the coronavirus

“We know that both Chinese and Russian military and intelligence operators leverage the global internet to spread mistruths and disinformation, seeking to sow uncertainty to destabilize our institutions and populace,” King and Gallagher said.  

The lawmakers added that “China is increasingly turning its massive domestic propaganda machine outward, pushing narratives and counter-narratives around the coronavirus outbreak, casting the U.S. in a negative light and suggesting the source of the outbreak may be U.S. military laboratories.”

The lawmakers, who lead a commission made up of top federal leaders that recently published a report laying out recommendations to protect the U.S. from nationwide cyberattacks, advocated for better digital literacy efforts to understand what is true and what is not online. 

“This pandemic has demonstrated the truly life or death importance of Americans receiving timely and trustworthy information in times of crisis,” they warned.

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