Russia and other foreign adversaries are ramping up efforts to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., according to an internal U.S. intelligence bulletin obtained by ABC News – a development that critics say reflects another example of Trump and the Russians parroting similar talking points.
The Oct. 19 intelligence bulletin, from analysts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and disseminated to federal state, and local law enforcement partners, noted the “re-emergence of domestic COVID-19 [misinformation and disinformation] narratives online" from China and Iran, but emphasized the most harmful material is emanating from Russia.
“Russia continues to spread COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories that have the greatest potential to impact U.S. public health efforts,” according to the bulletin. The bulletin did not provide more details on the impact, and DHS declined to comment on the leaked document.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wears protective gear as he visits a hospital where patients infected with the COVID-19 in Moscow on March 24, 2020.Russian President Vladimir Putin wears protective gear as he visits a hospital where patients infected with the COVID-19 in Moscow on March 24, 2020.
The bulletin found that disinformation narratives appear to be gaining traction online, as “the volume of engagement [with these] narratives has increased since 02 October.”
COVID has become one of the most politically consequential and charged topics in the upcoming election, with deep divisions emerging on masks, social distancing and lockdown measures and the use of certain therapeutics and vaccines.
The disease's lethality, method of transmission and other key points have become the subject of intense scientific and political debate, deriving in part from misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
While details of the specific conspiracies the Russians are peddling was not clear in the bulletin, several examples of coronavirus-related misinformation have emanated domestically – and often from the White House itself. The president’s mixed messages on the coronavirus – such as promoting untested therapies and calling into question the efficacy of wearing masks – has helped sow confusion and discord among Americans as they respond to the virus.
President Donald Trump addresses supoorters during a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns in Erie, PA., Oct. 20, 2020.President Donald Trump addresses supoorters during a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns in Erie, PA., Oct. 20, 2020.
The president has long faced scrutiny for misleading Americans about the pandemic. Perhaps most notably, during an interview with journalist Bob Woodward in March, Trump admitted to deliberately minimizing the seriousness of the disease publicly despite understanding its true danger.
After testing positive for the virus earlier this month, Trump told Americans, “don’t be afraid of Covid,” prompting scrutiny from critics who accused him of minimizing a disease that had already taken more than 200,000 American lives.
Critics say it is part of a pattern that harkens back to previous instances in which Trump has echoed messages aligned with misinformation from foreign adversaries.
“For years a key part of the Russian disinformation playbook has relied on American elected officials and mainstream media personalities amplifying their narratives,” said John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and the former undersecretary for intelligence at DHS under President Barack Obama.
“So from a national security perspective,” he continued, “it is highly disconcerting to see a growing number of instances in which these conspiracies promoted by Russia have been mimicked by the president and his supporters.”
The towers of the State Historical Museum, the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour stand in central Moscow.The towers of the State Historical Museum, the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour stand in central Moscow.
On several occasions in the past, Trump has promoted false narratives about other matters that match disinformation emanating from foreign adversaries. It has never been clear whether the president has taken his cues from the foreign adversaries or vice versa.
Last month, for example, ABC News reported that Russia sought to “amplify” concerns about the integrity of U.S. elections by promoting allegations that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud – an unfounded complaint Trump has raised frequently in recent months.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump has also tried to return focus to the business dealings of Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in large part by supporting the efforts of his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to dig up dirt on the Democratic contender’s family.
In September, the U.S. Treasury Department characterized one of Giuliani’s sources of information about the Bidens, Ukrainian politician Andrii Derkach, as a Russian agent. Giuliani said at the time that he had "no reason to believe [Derkach] is a Russian agent.”
A medic wearing a protective mask takes a swab from a man inside a mobile laboratory for coronavirus testing near Saint Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport, Russia March 23, 2020.A medic wearing a protective mask takes a swab from a man inside a mobile laboratory for coronavirus testing near Saint Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport, Russia March 23, 2020.
“There is nothing I saw that said he was a Russian agent,” Giuliani said. “There is nothing he gave me that seemed to come from Russia at all."
The Washington Post later reported on a classified CIA finding that “[Russian] President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President” – including Derkach’s collaboration with Giuliani.
In a statement responding to ABC News’ reporting last month, Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said, "We don't need or want any foreign interference," and added, "President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square.”