The U.S. State Department says Russia is exploiting a well-established online operation that includes proxy websites to amplify coronavirus disinformation and conspiracy theories.
"The websites the State Department identified Wednesday have promoted unsupported conspiracy theories that allege COVID-19 was created in a lab as a bioweapon, billionaire Bill Gates is plotting to use the pandemic as an excuse to microchip people, and that plans for a coronavirus vaccine are simply a ploy for pharmaceutical companies to make money," reports the Associated Press, which adds — "There is no evidence behind those claims."
The department detailed a Russian-backed misinformation cycle that spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports, by infiltrating U.S. social media conversation, and leveraging a deceptive internet framework of websites. The Kremlin's efforts have most recently focused on conspiracy theories around the pandemic, the report found.
"Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading misinformation and propaganda around many topics," said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department's Global Engagement Center.
The department named more than a half-dozen websites that, serving as "proxies" for Russia, have peddled a series of conspiracy theories about the pandemic that have been widely spreading and hotly debated across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The online news outlets appear independent from the Russian government, but in reality serve as a "connective tissue" between the Kremlin and state-funded media that often promote the same misinformation from their own channels, Gabrielle said.
"That's what makes them effective," Gabrielle said. "It's difficult for the average person online to look at these sites and know the Russian affiliation."