A medical staff member sprays disinfectant on a patient after returning from a hospital and re-entering a quarantine zone in Wuhan, on February 3, 2020.
STR/AFP via Getty Images
  • US officials told AFP they discovered an online Russian disinformation campaign aimed at spreading conspiracy theories blaming America for the coronavirus outbreak.
  • A network of "several thousand" Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were discovered posting near-identical messages in mid-January.
  • "By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response," one official said.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA's home page.

US officials say they have uncovered a Russian disinformation campaign spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.

Officials told Agence France Presse (AFP) that thousands of fake Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts have been found spreading theories that the US is behind the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Posts reportedly included claims that the virus was a bid to "wage economic war on China," that it was a bioweapon engineered by the CIA, and that it was fostered "to push anti-China messages."

According to a report produced by the State Department's Global Engagement Center and seen by AFP, the campaign was spotted in mid-January, with several thousand accounts - many of which were previously tied to Russian activities - posting "near-identical" messages about coronavirus.

These accounts are thought to be maintained by human operators rather than bots, and posted in a range of languages including English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. The US thinks the US is targeted at making it harder to fight the spread of the virus, particularly in Africa and Asia.

"By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response," US acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker told AFP.

As of Sunday, the World Health Organisation reported more than 78,800 cases of the virus worldwide. The vast majority of cases are still in mainland China where the outbreak originated, but WHO warned on Friday that the window of opportunity to limit its international spread is "narrowing."

It is not clear from AFP's report whether Facebook and Twitter were alerted to the campaigns, and neither were immediately available for comment when contacted by Business Insider.

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