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COVID-19 disinformation is Russia's latest attack on health care, science

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A law enforcement officer wearing a face mask stands guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Almaty on March 19, 2020, after authorities locked down the city to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. [Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP]

The Russian regime's active efforts to spread disinformation regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic are just the latest example of President Vladimir Putin's long-term campaign to discredit Western healthcare systems and American scientists, a recent investigation reveals.

While the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kremlin continues to spread damaging disinformation about the deadly virus, and endangering lives worldwide, according to a recent European Union (EU) study.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets are promoting disinformation about COVID-19 in order to worsen the crisis in the West by undermining trust in healthcare systems, warned an internal EU document seen by AFP in March.

Between January 22 and April 1, watchers logged more than 150 cases of pro-Kremlin disinformation on COVID-19, the European External Action Service (EEAS) reported.

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An anchor of the Russia Today (RT) TV company prepares to go on the air in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin uses RT regularly to spread disinformation. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

Sputnik Deutschland, for example, promoted the claim on Facebook and Twitter that "washing hands does not help" protect against the virus, the EU said.

Members of NATO have been outspoken too about the ongoing disinformation efforts.

Kremlin's co-ordinated effort to sow fear

The warnings came less than a month after US officials said thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts had embarked on a co-ordinated effort to spread alarm about the virus.

The strategy is to pump out dozens of different, sometimes contradictory, narratives to sow confusion and fear.

Examples include the notion that the coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed by China, the United States or the United Kingdom; that it originally broke out in the United States rather than in China; or that the virus is an instrument to impose totalitarian rule.

Pro-Kremlin sources are picking up and amplifying conspiracy theories originating elsewhere, such as China and Iran, said the EU's Stratcom East task force, which addresses Russian disinformation.

Other Kremlin propaganda extols Moscow's performance in fighting COVID-19, even though authorities in Russia had to frantically lock down their own country against a pandemic that they were late to recognise.

The disinformation campaign continues, even after Putin April 1 signed a bill approving severe punishment for those convicted of spreading false information about the novel coronavirus in Russia.

Putin's long history of spreading disinformation

The latest surge in false information coming out of Russia is part of Putin's long-term campaign "to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within", according to a New York Times investigation published April 13.

"His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics -- including flu outbreaks, Ebola [in 2014] and now the coronavirus -- were sown by American scientists," the newspaper reported.

Putin's involvement in such campaigns may go back as far as 1975, when he served in the old Soviet KGB.

In the KGB's foreign intelligence section, Putin was expected "to spend a quarter of [his] time conceiving and implementing plans for sowing disinformation", the newspaper reported.

The KGB during Putin's tenure launched a campaign that cast human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS as "a racial weapon developed by the American military to kill black citizens".

"By 1987, fake news stories had run in 25 languages and 80 countries," the New York Times said.

As president and prime minister, Putin uses Russia Today (now called RT to obscure its origins) as well as Sputnik to spread disinformation.

Decades of duplicity and lies

Linking any pandemic to American duplicity has become a hallmark of the Putin regime, the newspaper said.

It did it in 2009, when the H1N1 "swine flu" outbreak killed thousands worldwide.

At least nine RT shows and text bulletins that year featured the conspiracy-minded "investigative journalist" Wayne Madsen, who characterised the virus as "bioengineered".

It did it again in 2014 during the Ebola pandemic, which claimed more than 10,000 lives.

RT publicised an "open letter" written by Cyril Broderick for the Daily Observer, a major Liberian newspaper. He blamed Ebola on bio-terrorism experiments conducted by the US military and transnational pharmaceutical companies, among others.

Broderick, a former plant pathologist, cited the false AIDS accusation as supporting evidence.

That year, an RT presenter on TV said that the Ebola outbreak was an American test for a way to attack Russia.

Citing Broderick's article, the presenter asked, "Can you blame anyone for distrusting the US's medical intentions?"

Kremlin trolls at work

A shadowy group of internet "trolls" based in St. Petersburg began amplifying those bogus claims on Twitter, the New York Times reported.

"Ebola is government made," one tweet declared.

Putin established the group of trolls in 2012 to work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The same group has been spreading similar claims about COVID-19, including a blog post in February that claims "irrefutable" evidence that "the coronavirus was engineered by human scientists" and is a "bioweapon".

The website that carried the post belongs to a Russian news outlet called The Russophile.

The Kremlin's disinformation campaign likely includes state actors, intelligence operatives, former RT staff members and the digital teams of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a secretive oligarch and Putin confidant who financed the St. Petersburg troll farm, according to the report.

"The entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation has been engaged," Lea Gabrielle, co-ordinator of the US State Department's Global Engagement Centre, which seeks to identify and fight disinformation, told a US Senate hearing March 5.

Moscow pounced on the coronavirus outbreak as a new opportunity to "take advantage of a health crisis where people are terrified", she said.

China, Iran following Russia's lead

The regimes in China -- where the virus originated -- and in Iran -- one of the world's worst hit countries -- have both taken a page from the Russian playbook.

All three of these governments are actively promoting alternative narratives about COVID-19.

Beijing is striving to deflect criticism by promoting conspiracy theories.

After officials realised that the virus that originated in China was wreaking untold global havoc, the Chinese disinformation machine began working.

In a bid to appear as a benevolent power amid the crisis, Beijing has exported medical equipment all around the world -- including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe -- earning billions of dollars.

Adding insult to injury, much of the equipment was defective.

Meanwhile, Tehran is spreading conspiracy theories, most notably that the United States created the virus, in an attempt to divert attention from the Iranian regime's mishandling of the outbreak.

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It looks like Russia is trying to cover up the truth about where the coronavirus came from. It came from the biological laboratory Vektor in Novosibirsk. There should be a claim filed against Russia for trillions of dollars.

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