On Feb. 3, soon after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global health emergency, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog. It said the pathogen was a germ weapon designed to incapacitate and kill. The headline called the evidence “irrefutable” even though top scientists had already debunked that claim and declared the novel virus to be natural.
As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has been accompanied by a dangerous surge of false information — an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within.
The House, the Senate and the nation’s intelligence agencies have typically focused on election meddling in their examinations of Mr. Putin’s long campaign. But the repercussions are wider. An investigation by The New York Times — involving scores of interviews as well as a review of scholarly papers, news reports, and Russian documents, tweets and TV shows — found that Mr. Putin has spread misinformation on issues of personal health for more than a decade.
His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists. The disinformers have also sought to undermine faith in the safety of vaccines, a triumph of public health that Mr. Putin himself promotes at home.
Moscow’s aim, experts say, is to portray American officials as downplaying the health alarms and thus posing serious threats to public safety.
“It’s all about seeding lack of trust in government institutions,” Peter Pomerantsev, author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a 2014 book on Kremlin disinformation, said in an interview.
The Russian president has waged his long campaign by means of open media, secretive trolls and shadowy blogs that regularly cast American health officials as patronizing frauds. Of late, new stealth and sophistication have made his handiwork harder to see, track and fight.
Even so, the State Department recently accused Russia of using thousands of social media accounts to spread coronavirus misinformation — including a conspiracy theory that the United States engineered the deadly pandemic.
The Kremlin’s audience for open disinformation is surprisingly large. The YouTube videos of RT, Russia’s global television network, average one million views per day, “the highest among news outlets,” according to a U.S. intelligence report. Since the founding of the Russian network in 2005, its videos have received more than four billion views, analysts recently concluded.
Because public interest in wellness and longevity runs high, health disinformation can have a disproportionally large social impact. Experts fear that it will foster public cynicism that erodes Washington’s influence as well as the core democratic value of relying on demonstrable facts as a basis for decision-making.
“The accumulation of these operations over a long period of time will result in a major political impact,” Ladislav Bittman, a former Soviet bloc disinformation officer, said in explaining the Kremlin’s long-game rationale.
Sandra C. Quinn, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland who has followed Mr. Putin’s vaccine scares for more than a half-decade, said the Russian president was drawing on an old playbook. “The difference now is the speed with which it spreads, and the denigration of the institutions that we rely on to understand the truth,” she said in an interview. “I think we’re in dangerous territory.”
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As a young man, Mr. Putin served in the K.G.B., the Soviet Union’s main intelligence agency, from 1975 to 1991. He worked in foreign intelligence, which required its officers to spend a quarter of their time conceiving and implementing plans for sowing disinformation. What Mr. Putin accomplished is unclear. But public accounts show that he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and that his 16-year tenure coincided with a major K.G.B. operation to deflect attention from Moscow’s secret arsenal of biological weapons, which it built in contravention of a treaty signed with the United States in 1972.
The K.G.B. campaign — which cast the deadly virus that causes AIDS as a racial weapon developed by the American military to kill black citizens — was wildly successful. By 1987, fake news stories had run in 25 languages and 80 countries, undermining American diplomacy, especially in Africa. After the Cold War, in 1992, the Russians admitted that the alarms were fraudulent.
As Russia’s president and prime minister, Mr. Putin has embraced and expanded the playbook, linking any natural outbreak to American duplicity. Attacking the American health system, and faith in it, became a hallmark of his rule.
Early in 2009, a particularly virulent flu, named H1N1, swept the globe, and thousands of people died. That year, the network featured the conspiratorial views of Wayne Madsen, a regular contributor in Washington whom it described as an investigative journalist. In at least nine shows and text bulletins, Mr. Madsen characterized the deadly germ as bioengineered. “The world is actually fighting a man-made tragedy,” one bulletin declared.
That June, Mr. Madsen told RT viewers that the virus makers had worked at a shadowy mix of laboratories, including the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md. The institute’s official job is to help defend the United States against the kinds of pathogens that Mr. Madsen accused it of creating.
In a follow-up show, Mr. Madsen said the virus had been spliced together from other flu strains, including the virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic, and likened its creators to the mad scientists of “Jurassic Park,” the hit movie about resurrected dinosaurs. RT’s chyron for the show characterized the result as “Germ Warfare.”
In 2012 Mr. Putin added the military to his informational arsenal. His newly appointed head of the Russian Army, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, laid out a new doctrine of war that stressed public messaging as a means of stirring foreign dissent. That same year, a shadowy group of trolls in St. Petersburg began using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to fire salvos of junk information at millions of Americans. The goals were to boost social polarization and damage the reputation of federal agencies.
A rich opportunity arose in 2014 when Ebola swept West Africa. It was the worst-ever outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever, eventually claiming more than 10,000 lives.
RT’s gallery of alleged criminals once again included the U.S. Army. The network profiled an accusation by Cyril Broderick, a former plant pathologist, who claimed in a Liberian newspaper article that the outbreak was an American plot to turn Africans into bioweapon guinea pigs, and cited the AIDS accusation as supporting evidence.
The RT presenter noted that the United States was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to aid Ebola victims in Africa but added: “It can’t buy back the world’s trust.”
The trolls in St. Petersburg amplified the claim on Twitter. The deadly virus “is government made,” one tweet declared. Another series of tweets called the microorganism “just a regular bio weapon.” The idea found an audience. The hip-hop artist Chris Brown echoed it in 2014, telling his 13 million Twitter followers, “I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”
C.D.C. in the cross hairs
Mr. Putin’s campaign of health misinformation was now a global enterprise, with the creative energy of a fun house and the ability to strike anywhere.
The next target was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States’ flagship public health agency. In late 2014, a rash of fake news reports falsely claimed that an Ebola victim in Liberia had been flown to Atlanta, starting a local outbreak. A YouTube video showed what it described as C.D.C. personnel, in hazmat suits, receiving and moving the patient in secret. The deceptive video included a truck bearing the logo of the Atlanta airport.
As the Kremlin grew more confident, it began to simply recycle old narratives rather than wait for new epidemics to emerge. In 2017, Russian trolls used Twitter to give the AIDS falsehood new life. This time the claimed perpetrator was Dr. Robert Gallo, a scientist who in 1984 had actually helped discover the virus that causes AIDS. The tweets quoted him, falsely, as saying he had designed the pathogen to depopulate humanity. The trolls cited a website, World Truth. Its video attacking Dr. Gallo registered nearly four million views.
Six researchers centered at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that, over decades, the false narratives around AIDS had fostered a “lack of trust” among African-Americans that kept many from seeking medical care. Their 2018 study, of hundreds of black men in Los Angeles who have sex with men, reported that nearly half the interviewees thought the virus responsible for AIDS had been manufactured. And more than one-fifth viewed people who take new protective drugs as “human guinea pigs for the government.”
Within Russia, Mr. Putin has been a staunch proponent of vaccines.
“I make sure I get my vaccinations in time, before the flu season starts,” he told listeners to a 2016 call-in show. At a televised meeting with doctors in St. Petersburg, in 2018, he scolded Russian parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids: “They endanger the lives of their own children.”
Calling the issue “very important,” he warned of possible administrative steps to speed the pace of childhood immunizations. Last fall, Russia’s health authorities laid out expanded rules that require strict new adherence to protocols for childhood vaccination.
At the same time, Mr. Putin has worked hard to encourage Americans to see vaccinations as dangerous and federal health officials as malevolent. The threat of autism is a regular theme of this anti-vaccine campaign. The C.D.C. has repeatedly ruled out the possibility that vaccinations lead to autism, as have many scientists and top journals. Nonetheless the false narrative has proliferated, spread by Russian trolls and media.
Moreover, the disinformation has sought to implicate the C.D.C. in a cover-up. For years, tweets originating in St. Petersburg have claimed that the health agency muzzled a whistle-blower to hide evidence that vaccines cause autism, especially in male African-American infants. Medical experts have dismissed the allegation, but it reverberated.
In a series of 2015 tweets, Russian trolls promoted a video of a black minister in Los Angeles addressing a rally. “They’re not just shooting us with guns,” he told the audience. “They’re killing us with needles.” The minister and accompanying text in the video claimed that childhood immunizations had caused autism in 200,000 black children.
RT America echoed the charge. It focused on “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a 2016 film by Andrew Wakefield, a discredited anti-vaccine activist. When the film was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival after a public outcry, the network aired an interview with its creators. “Can we trust the C.D.C. on vaccines?” a plug for the show asked.
Mr. Putin’s disinformation blitz has coincided with a drop in vaccination rates among children in the United States and a rise in measles, a disease once considered vanquished. The virus, especially in infants and young children, can cause fevers and brain damage. Last year, according to the C.D.C., the United States had 1,282 new cases, a record in recent decades; of these, 128 involved hospitalizations and 61 resulted in major complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis.
The new threat
The Moscow site that retweeted the coronavirus blog in February belongs to a Russian news outlet called The Russophile. It is tauntingly bold. The author portrait on its Twitter page shows an unidentifiable soldier in green fatigues holding an orange tabby cat. The background image is a colorized Kremlin mosaic. The site calls itself a “news feed from free (= not owned by the globalist elite) media.”
On the site’s About page, under the heading “Some more reasons for our existence,” is a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
The website lists its owner’s name as OOOKremlinTrolls and its street address as an imposing building next door to the offices of Lukoil, a Russian oil giant tied to Cambridge Analytica’s digital campaigns to sway American voters. “It’s a nice part of town,” Darren L. Linvill, a Clemson University expert who uncovered the retweets, said of the Russophile address.
The site epitomizes the complicated nature of the new threat, parts of which have evolved to become more open, while others have grown stealthier. “It’s a cloud of Russian influencers,” said Dr. Linvill, a professor of communications who has studied millions of troll postings. The players, he said, probably include state actors, intelligence operatives, former RT staff members and the digital teams of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a secretive oligarch and confident of Mr. Putin’s who financed the St. Petersburg troll farm.
The new brand of disinformation is subtler than the old. Dr. Linvill and his colleague Patrick L. Warren have argued that Mr. Putin’s new methodology seeks less to create than to curate — to retweet and amplify the existing American cacophony, raising the level of confusion and partisan discord.
Much of the disinformation, like the Russophile site, lies hidden in plain sight. But other elements embody a new sophistication that makes it increasingly hard for tech companies to ferret out the interference of Russia, or any other country. Experts say that Russian trolls may even be paying Americans to post disinformation on their behalf, to better hide their digital fingerprints.
On March 5, Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which seeks to identify and fight disinformation, told a Senate hearing that Moscow had pounced on the coronavirus outbreak as a new opportunity to sow chaos and division — to “take advantage of a health crisis where people are terrified.”
“The entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation has been engaged,” she reported. Her center’s analysts and partners, Ms. Gabrielle added, have found “Russian state proxy websites, official state media, as well as swarms of online false personas pushing out false narratives.”
RT America dismissed the department’s charges, which were first made in February, as “loosely detailed.” In her March testimony, Ms. Gabrielle said that her center had intentionally made public few details and examples of the disinformation, so that adversaries could not decipher “our tradecraft,” presumably in an effort to foil countermeasures.
Tass, the Russian news agency, reported that the Foreign Ministry firmly rejected the State Department’s charge. That response echoes an iron rule of disinformation. As Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general, put it in a video interview with The Times: “Deny, deny, deny — even if the truth is obvious.”
Beijing now appears to be borrowing from Mr. Putin’s playbook, at least the early drafts. It recently declared that the coronavirus was devised by Washington as a designer weapon meant to cripple China.
Mr. Putin has disseminated false and alarming health narratives not only about pathogens and vaccines but also about radio waves, bioengineered genes, industrial chemicals and other intangibles of modern life. The knotty topics often defy public understanding, making them ideal candidates for sowing confusion over what’s safe and dangerous.
Analysts see an effort not only to undermine American officials but also to accomplish something more basic: to damage American science, a foundation of national prosperity. American researchers have won more than 100 Nobel Prizes since 2000, and Russians five. Geographically, Russia is the world’s largest country, but its economy is smaller than Italy’s.
As Dr. Quinn of the University of Maryland put it, Mr. Putin’s salvos are targeting “the institutions that we rely on to understand the truth.”