Russian Operatives Spreading Coronavirus Disinformation

What is the difference between doubt and distrust? Doubt can be overcome by evidence. Distrust cannot.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine has now become completely politicized in the USA. Among Democrats, 93% report that they’ve already gotten at least one shot or are likely to, compared with only 49% of Republicans.

Why so much refusal to vaccinate among the GOP? Because they’re being targeted by a deliberate campaign of disinformation. Science denial isn’t a mistake, it’s a purposeful lie.

Despite ample data that the vaccines are safe, false stories circulate on the internet claiming that scientists are lying to us, that the vaccines can make you infertile, that they contain microchips, that they can alter your DNA. Do these worries arise organically? Maybe some do. But such disinformation is often intentionally created to serve someone’s financial, political or ideological interests.

Among those with something to gain is the Russian government, which is diligently working to undermine confidence in the vaccines as part of its goal of destabilizing American society. It has been spreading misinformation for years on a host of other virus-related topics, including the flu and Ebola. From there, it’s a short hop to having their message amplified by conspiracy-embracing, right-wing media, whether witting or not, and by the soulless churn of algorithms on social media.

And it doesn’t take many people amplifying a false message to have an outsize effect. According to a recent PBS story, 65% of the anti-vaccine propaganda on Twitter was due to just 12 people, some of whom are profiting from the creation of bogus skepticism through the promotion of alternative treatments and cures.

The targets for all of this disinformation are gullible people, who are already feeling defensive and threatened and now feel justified in questioning scientific consensus. Of course, they don’t get anything out of it. Most of the people we call science deniers are just pawns of others who profit from their credulity or ideological allegiance. And in the case of COVID vaccine refusal, those pawns are dying. According to an Associated Press analysis of CDC data, 99.2% of COVID deaths in the U.S. are now among the unvaccinated.

What is the most effective way to fight back? Certainly, it would be good to inform people who are being duped just exactly who is doing the duping. For those who are already disposed to believe in conspiracy theories, here is a real live conspiracy! (Of course, as Mark Twain reportedly said, it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled).

What doesn’t work? Telling a science denier they’re wrong. Just providing facts and evidence won’t work. The antidote to denial is not more (potentially untrustworthy) information, but to increase trust.

The anecdotal literature shows that when someone gives up their denialist beliefs it is almost always a result of personal engagement. Within this context, trust grows and facts can be effective.

But can it work with strangers?

Longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group to try to find an effective message to get people to take their COVID shots. Here’s what he found worked: listening, patience and respect. The participants — all of whom started out reluctant to take the vaccine — began to trust him, and within that context he provided information that ultimately led all 19 of them to say that they were more likely to take their shots.

In researching my forthcoming book, “How to talk to a science denier,” I found similar tactics were effective not only on anti-vaxxers, but also climate deniers and others.

Perhaps the answer to our current crisis is not more evidence, but more engagement. Rather than retreat to our favorite news silos, we might try interacting with those who think differently than we do. In an era of polarization, wouldn’t it be great if we learned to talk to — and trust — one another again?

A trio of websites have reportedly been used by Russian intelligence operatives to spread anti-American views and disinformation about the pandemic.

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 directed at 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 a connection between the sites and Russian intelligence.

Between late May and early July, one of the officials said, a trio of websites published about 150 articles about the pandemic response, including coverage aimed at propping up Russia and denigrating the U.S.

Among the headlines that caught the attention of U.S. officials are “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.” 

Officials described the disinformation as part of an ongoing and persistent Russian effort to cause confusion.

The sites promote their narratives in a sophisticated but insidious effort that 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.

The sites focus on contemporary politics as well. 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 also held leadership roles at InfoRos, identified Tuesday as Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously served in a GRU unit specializing in military psychological intelligence and maintain deep contacts there, the officials said.

InfoRos and One World’s ties to the Russian state have attracted scrutiny in the past from European disinformation analysts. 

In 2019, a European Union task force that studies disinformation campaigns identified One World as “a new addition to the pantheon of Moscow-based disinformation outlets.” The task force noted that One World’s content often parrots the Russian state agenda on issues including the war in Syria.

A report published last month by a second, nongovernmental organization, Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab, examined links between InfoRos and One World to Russian military intelligence. The researchers identified technical clues tying their websites to Russia and identified some financial connections between InfoRos and the government.

 

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