US paints murky picture of Russian disinformation on coronavirus

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The State Department is raising the alarm that Russia has mobilized an “ecosystem” of humans and online bots to push conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.

But critics say those allegations come from a single, unpublished report and that its conclusions don’t fully support public statements by U.S. officials.

The confusion has created a rift, with the federal government on one side and independent experts and social media companies on the other.

It also underscores U.S. challenges to guarding against information manipulation by adversaries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and free speech.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC), a division of the State Department charged with combating propaganda online, revealed last month an analysis of what it called a Russian campaign of disinformation around coronavirus.

In a report citing nearly 2 million tweets in multiple languages, the GEC said thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts pushed and amplified unfounded conspiracy theories of the U.S. and prominent American philanthropists manufacturing the outbreak as part of a racist and profit-making campaign against China.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said the outbreak that originated in China late last year is linked to animal-to-human transmission and then human-to-human transmission.

The GEC report was shared with the French newswire Agence France-Presse (AFP), which reported on its existence in late February.

“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, told AFP. “By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response.”

The Washington Post later reported that it had obtained a copy of the report but raised doubts about the allegations, saying Russia was never mentioned in the document.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the U.S. allegations “a deliberate fake,” in remarks to the Russian News Agency TASS.

A State Department spokesperson responded to an inquiry from the Hill by confirming as accurate the quotes in the AFP article and noted that the department continues “to consult with social media companies.”

Yet Facebook, which owns Instagram and the internationally popular messaging service WhatsApp, said its calls to the State Department regarding the matter have gone unanswered.

“We have asked the State Department to share the evidence behind their report and they have not done so,” a Facebook company spokesperson told The Hill.

Social media companies are on the front line of combating disinformation against coronavirus, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on Wednesday.

Silicon Valley has taken steps to ensure more transparency following Russia’s 2016 election interference, and companies have expanded their efforts to root out coordinated campaigns by malicious actors spreading disinformation online.

Twitter said it received a copy of the GEC report and a briefing, later describing the report as containing broad themes. On March 4, Twitter wrote in a blog post that it hasn’t seen a “significant coordinated platform manipulation efforts around these issues.”

The lack of independent verification surrounding the GEC report’s allegations has raised questions about the State Department’s methods for tracking and labeling such campaigns. Experts say even covert operations often lead to public content that can be identified and removed.

But the disinformation campaign being described by the GEC isn’t something that’s being seen in the public sphere, according to analysts.

Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan and transatlantic initiative that tracks Russian-state media, said among Moscow’s dedicated coronavirus coverage over a variety of channels, only a small part has been overtly biased against the West and sympathetic to China.

“By far, the majority of the coverage has consisted of basic news updates on travel restrictions, economic impacts, and the virus’s spread,” she said. “A small amount of this content has highlighted stories of racism and xenophobia in the West, or promoted lighthearted stories about people under quarantine in China, echoing themes we’ve seen in China’s state media coverage of the crisis.”

An analyst who viewed the report told The Hill that the GEC’s conclusions assigning Russia as behind an organized campaign of disinformation weren’t immediately obvious. The analyst also criticized the evidence and methods, saying they weren’t thorough or transparent.

The GEC has defended its decision to selectively share the report and pushed back against calls to make the report more widely available.

“I think what’s important is exposing and showing enough supportive data or supportive analysis to expose the problem,” Special Envoy to the GEC Lea Gabrielle told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee last week. “But what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to share our tradecraft with our adversaries.”

Lawmakers are split over the need to widely publish the report. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who authored the legislation that expanded the GEC’s mandate in 2016 to include tracking Russian interference, are on opposite sides of the debate.

“Rob is pleased by the progress being made by the Global Engagement Center and their recent research highlighting Russian disinformation efforts,” Emily Benavides, a spokesman for Portman, said in an email to The Hill. “He also fully supports Lea Gabrielle’s comments during the hearing that clearly stated Russia has used their ‘entire disinformation environment’ to propagate false narratives during the threat of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.”

Murphy said there is a balance between protecting sensitive information and educating the public.

“There is sensitivity involved in all of the GEC’s work as they are acting on classified information and need to protect sources so they can continue to produce important reports like the one we saw on coronavirus misinformation,” he wrote in an email to The Hill. “But it’s important they share what they can about these disinformation campaigns in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their ability to use the multiple tools at their disposal to counter disinformation.” 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has formally asked the State Department to make the report publicly available, according to spokeswoman Kristin Lynch.

Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, argued in favor of more transparency over efforts to track disinformation campaigns, saying it helps the public to better identify authentic information.

“One of the distinct advantages of monitoring the information ecosystem across social media for false or misleading narratives is that the vast majority of content is accessible to everyone,” he said. “Assessments can be transparent and replicable for a wider research community, which helps to build back public trust and avoid hyperbole.”

Tags China Chris Murphy Coronavirus Cory Booker disinformation campaign Facebook Moscow Rob Portman Russia Twitter
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