U.S. Health and Science War: NYT linked measles and coronavirus outbreaks to Putin
A decade of misinformation in the health sector, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led to confusion in the American information field, crippled large institutions, and contributed to the spread of deadly diseases, says William Broad, author The New York Times.
On February 3, shortly after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global health emergency, one Moscow Twitter account began retweeting an American blog. It stated that the virus is a bacteriological weapon. The headline called the evidence "incontrovertible," although leading scientists have already refuted this claim and declared the new virus natural.
As the pandemic swept across the world, it was accompanied by a dangerous influx of false information - "infodemia," according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin was instrumental in spreading false information as part of his broader efforts to discredit the West and destroy its enemies from within.
An investigation by The New York Times, including many interviews, as well as a review of scientific articles, news reports, Russian documents, tweets, and television shows, showed Putin had been spreading personal health misinformation for more than a decade.
His agents have repeatedly put forward and spread the idea that viral epidemics - including outbreaks of influenza, Ebola, and now the coronavirus - were sown by American scientists. Disinformers are also trying to undermine confidence in the safety of vaccines, a triumph for the public health trend that Putin himself is promoting at home.
Experts say Moscow's goal is to portray US officials as downplaying health concerns and thus posing a serious threat to public safety.
"The goal is to sow distrust of government institutions," said Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing's True and Anything's Possible, about Kremlin disinformation in an interview.
The Russian president has led his long campaign with open media, secretive trolls and shadow blogs that regularly expose U.S. health officials as scammers. Recently, new tricks and sophistication of the approach have led to the fact that his work has become more difficult to see, track and fight, notes Broad in the article.
Despite this, the Department of State recently accused Russia of using thousands of social media accounts to spread misinformation about coronavirus, including the conspiracy theory that the United States provoked a deadly pandemic.
The Kremlin’s audience for open disinformation is surprisingly large. The YouTube video on RT, the Russian global television network, gains an average of a million views a day, "the highest rate among news agencies," according to a U.S. intelligence report. Analysts recently concluded that since the founding of the Russian network in 2005, its videos have received more than four billion views.
As public interest in health and longevity increases, misinformation can have a disproportionate social impact. Experts fear that this will reinforce the public cynicism that undermines Washington's influence, as well as the fundamental democratic value of relying on evidence as a basis for making decisions.
“The accumulation of these operations over a long period of time will have serious political consequences,” said Ladislav Bittman, a former Soviet bloc disinformation officer, explaining the Kremlin’s long game.
Sandra Quinn, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland who has long followed Putin's "fears" about vaccines, said the Russian president is relying on an old scenario.
“The difference now lies in the speed at which disinformation is spreading and the defamation of institutions we rely on to understand the truth,” she said in an interview. "I think we're in dangerous territory."
In his youth, Putin served in the KGB, the main intelligence agency of the Soviet Union, from 1975 to 1991. He worked in foreign intelligence, which required his officers to spend a quarter of their time developing and implementing disinformation plans. What Putin has achieved is unclear. But public reports show that he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and that his 16-year service life coincided with a major KGB operation to divert attention from Moscow's secret arsenal of biological weapons, built in violation of an agreement signed with the United States in 1972.
The KGB campaign, in which the deadly virus causing AIDS, was presented as a racial weapon developed by the US military to kill black citizens, was extremely successful. By 1987, fake news appeared in 25 languages and 80 countries, which undermined American diplomacy, especially in Africa. After the Cold War, in 1992, the Russians admitted that the action was fraudulent.
As the Russian president and prime minister, Putin adopted and expanded a collection of such scenarios, linking any natural outburst with American duplicity. The attack on the American health care system and faith in it became a hallmark of his reign, the author writes.
First, the main distributor of fake news was Russia Today, founded in 2005 in Moscow; In 2008, the channel was renamed RT, hiding its Russian origin.
At the beginning of 2009, a particularly dangerous H1N1 flu swept the globe, killing thousands of people. In the same year, the conspiratorial views of Wayne Madsen, a permanent employee in Washington, who called himself an investigative journalist, appeared on the network. In at least nine shows and text newsletters, Madsen described the deadly microbe as bioengineered.
“The world is actually fighting a man-made tragedy,” says one bulletin.
In June of that year, Madsen told RT viewers that virus creators were working in grim laboratories, including the Fort Detrick Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, in Frederick, Maryland. The institute's official job is to help defend the United States against various types of pathogens, but Madden blamed the institute for creating them. In a subsequent show, Madsen said that the virus had been paired with other strains of influenza, including the virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic, and compared their creators to the mad scientists at Jurassic Park. In 2010, the chain founded a new division, RT America, a few blocks from the White House. Madsen became a regular guest on camera.
In 2012, Putin added the military to his information arsenal. His newly appointed head of the Russian army, General Valery Gerasimov, outlined a new doctrine of war, in which public communication was emphasized as a means of inciting dissent. In the same year, a shadow group of Internet trolls in St. Petersburg began using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to give out unnecessary data to millions of Americans. The goals were to strengthen social polarization and damage the reputation of federal agencies.
Another opportunity arose in 2014 when Ebola swept across West Africa. It was the worst outbreak of hemorrhagic fever, with more than 10 deaths. In the gallery of RT alleged criminals, there was the US Army again. The network cited the accusation of Cyril Broderick, a former pathologist, who claimed in an article in a Liberian newspaper that the outbreak was an American conspiracy to turn Africans into "guinea pigs" for biological weapons testing, and cited the AIDS outbreak as corroborating evidence.
An RT presenter noted that the United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars to help Ebola victims in Africa, but added: “They cannot redeem the trust of the world.”
Trolls in St. Petersburg stepped up attacks on Twitter. The deadly virus "created by the government," says one tweet. Another series of tweets calls the microorganism "just an ordinary bio-weapon." The idea found an audience, the publication notes.
CDC at the crossroads
Putin's disinformation campaign has become a global venture with creative energy and the ability to strike anywhere.
The next target was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flagship US public health agency. At the end of 2014, many false news reports claimed that the Ebola victim in Liberia was brought to Atlanta, causing a local outbreak. YouTube videos showed how allegedly CDC staff in protective suits covertly transports a patient. The false video included a truck with the Atlanta airport logo.
The flurry of new tweets became louder. “Panic here in Atlanta!” One said. Another exclaimed: “My God! Ebola is everywhere! "
As the Kremlin became more confident, it began to simply recycle old stories, rather than wait for new epidemics to appear. In 2017, Russian trolls used Twitter to breathe new life into the AIDS lie. This time, the alleged culprit was Dr. Robert Gallo, a scientist who, in 1984, actually helped detect the virus that caused AIDS. False quotes were tweeted as if he had developed a pathogen to depopulate humanity. The video recorded nearly four million views.
Six researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that over the decades, false AIDS stories have contributed to a “lack of confidence” among African Americans, which has kept many from seeking medical attention. Their 2018 study of hundreds of black men in Los Angeles who have sex with men reported that almost half of those polled said the virus was artificial. And more than one fifth considered people who take new protective drugs to be "human guinea pigs for the government."
In Russia, Putin was a staunch supporter of vaccines.
“I have to get my shots on time, before the flu season starts,” he told listeners in 2016. In a televised meeting with doctors in St. Petersburg in 2018, he scolded Russian parents who refuse to vaccinate their children: "They endanger the lives of their children."
Calling this issue "very important," he warned of possible administrative measures to accelerate the rate of immunization of children. Last fall, Russian health authorities laid out expanded rules that require new strict adherence to vaccination protocols for children.
At the same time, Putin has worked hard to persuade Americans to view vaccinations as dangerous and federal health officials as evil. The threat of autism is a recurring theme in this vaccine campaign. The CDC has repeatedly ruled out the possibility that vaccines lead to autism, as many scientists and leading journals do. However, the false narrative was spread by Russian trolls and the media.
In addition, misinformation sought to draw the CDC into the theory of hidden conspiracy. For many years, tweets that appeared in St. Petersburg claimed that the health agency had intimidated informants in order to hide evidence of the effect of vaccines on autism, especially among male African American children. Medical experts dismissed the charge, but it was reflected in people's opinions.
In a 2015 series of tweets, Russian trolls touted a video of a black minister in Los Angeles speaking at a rally.
“They don't just shoot us with guns,” he told the audience. "They are killing us with needles."
The minister and accompanying text in the video claimed that vaccinations caused autism in 200 black children.
RT America echoed the accusation, focusing on The Vaccinated: From Cover-Up to Disaster, a film by Andrew Wakefield, a discredited vaccine activist. When the film was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival following a public outcry, the network aired interviews with its creators. The Russian trolls launched tweets containing links to the film and a fundraising site to promote it.
The blitz of misinformation coincided with a fall in childhood vaccinations in the United States and a rise in measles, a disease that was once thought to be defeated. The virus, especially in infants and young children, can cause fever and brain damage. Last year, the United States had 1282 new cases, a record in decades, according to the CDC; of these, 128 were associated with hospitalization, and 61 with serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis.
The Moscow site, which retweeted a blog about coronavirus in February, is owned by a Russian news publication called Russophil. The author’s portrait on his Twitter page shows an unidentified soldier in green uniform holding an orange tabby cat. The background image is a painted Kremlin mosaic. The site calls itself "a news feed from free (= non-globalist elite) media."
On the About Website page, under the heading “A Few More Reasons for Our Existence,” is a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some people all the time, and sometimes all people, but you can't fool all people all the time.”
The website lists the name of its owner, OOO Kremlin-Trolls, and its address is an imposing building adjacent to the offices of Lukoil, a Russian oil giant linked to Cambridge Analytica's digital campaigns that influenced American voters.
“It's a cloud of Russian influencers,” said Dr. Linville, a communications professor who has studied millions of troll messages. The participants, he said, likely include statesmen, intelligence officials, former RT employees and digital teams of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a secretive oligarch and Putin's confidante who financed the St. Petersburg troll farm.
Most of the misinformation remains hidden, in full view of everyone. Many elements embody a new sophistication that makes it difficult for technology companies to detect the intervention of Russia or any other country. Experts say that Russian trolls can even pay Americans for posting misinformation on their behalf to better hide their digital fingerprints.
On March 5, Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department's Center for Global Engagement, which seeks to identify and combat disinformation, said at a Senate hearing that Moscow has recognized the coronavirus outbreak as a new opportunity to wreak havoc and division - “to take advantage of a health crisis when people are terrified.”
“The entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation was involved,” she said.
Analysts and partners at her center, Gabrielle added, found that "Russian state proxy sites, official state media, and many fake online people give false stories."
RT America dismissed the department’s allegations, which were first made in February, as “poorly detailed.” In her March testimony, Gabrielle stated that her center had deliberately disclosed several details and examples of misinformation so that opponents could not interfere with countermeasures.
The Russian news agency TASS reported that the Foreign Ministry firmly rejected the State Department's accusations. This answer echoes the ironclad rule of disinformation. As Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, said in a video interview with The Times: "Deny, deny, deny - even if the truth is obvious."
It seems that Beijing has now borrowed the script from Putin, at least the earlier episodes. He recently announced that Washington developed coronavirus as a weapon designed to harm China.
Putin spread false and disturbing health stories not only about pathogens and vaccines, but also about radio waves, bioengineered genes, industrial chemicals and other intangible elements of modern life. Sophisticated topics often challenge public understanding, making them ideal candidates for sowing confusion about what is safe and dangerous.
Analysts see an attempt not only to undermine the credibility of American officials, but also to do something more fundamental: to damage American science, which is the basis of national prosperity. American researchers have won more than 100 Nobel prizes since 2000, and Russians have won 5. Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world, but its economy is smaller than that of Italy.
As Dr. Quinn of the University of Maryland said, Putin’s efforts are aimed at “the institutions we rely on to understand the truth,” notes The New York Times.
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