Exclusive: Documents Reveal U.S. Military is Tracking Russian Government News Agencies For Disinformation on Coronavirus

The U.S. military is bracing for possible Russian disinformation regarding the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Department of Defense documents obtained by Newsweek.

Military planners are actively tracking disinformation campaigns promulgated by accounts operated by — or attributable to — the Russian government. Between January 28 and February 3, the "coronavirus" hashtag was the most used by major Russian news Twitter accounts, according to the documents.

Information about the new coronavirus flooding social media was cause for concern among World Health Organization (WHO) officials who said they were working to diminish an "infodemic." Such campaigns, while not uncommon, are an obstacle for implementing an effective response, those officials said.

But the documents obtained by Newsweek more broadly reveal U.S. military efforts to track and detail social media during a heated election year as cyber officials at U.S. Cyber Command are anticipating further Russian meddling in the 2020 presidential elections which could rival Kremlin efforts in 2016.

Slides prepared for a PowerPoint briefing marked "unclassified" by military planners show how the U.S. Army North is tracking the "information environment" on Twitter, including the accounts of Sputnik, RT (formerly known as Russia Today), the Ministry of Defense-owned Channel Zvezda, and Russian, English, Spanish, French, German, and Turkish language profiles operated by those outlets. The documents contain the social media reach of the top-performing accounts, plus the most popular hashtags, key phrases and most successful stories shared on each.

(You can view the documents here).

One of the slides shows an illustration of Russian President Vladimir Putin with an outstretched arm and an open hand as he releases Moscow's message to the world through social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. The files were obtained by multiple American officials who then provided the documents to Newsweek. The officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.

"The documents are not indicative of current assessments, approaches, or operations," a U.S. Army North spokesperson said in a statement. "It would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions from these documents."

Sputnik declined to comment but told Newsweek to send the Pentagon its "best regards." No reply was returned from Channel Zvevda.

"While we embrace all segments of our American audience, and hope they enjoy our content across all platforms, we can't help but think that U.S. Military resources would be better spent away from the screens and on physical preparations against the coronavirus," RT said in an email statement to Newsweek.

russia u.s. military coronavirus disinformation
A tourist wearing a medical mask walks along a street in Moscow on January 29. Documents obtained by Newsweek show U.S. Army North is tracking the “information environment” on Twitter, watching the activity of accounts run by—or attributable to—the Russian government. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty

The new coronavirus, a viral outbreak originating in Wuhan, China, which spread to 28 countries and territories worldwide including Russia, dominated social media interactions by the tracked Russian government accounts.

The outbreak has killed 565 people and infected more than 28,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracking website. The vast majority of those affected are in mainland China, where major cities in Hubei Province have been quarantined to try and stymie the virus' spread.

The outbreak was mentioned 567 times by the monitored accounts, with the "CoronavirusChino" hashtag used 91 times.Other popular hashtags were "Brexit" (used 151 times), "Russia" (used 116 times), "Trump" (used 70 times), and "China" (70 times).

"Coronavirus" also topped the list of most common key phrases, used 528 times in the period detailed. Second was "Trump" with 222, and third "Brexit" with 135. Other coronavirus-related key phrases make the topic even more dominant, such as "coronavirus outbreak" (119 uses), "Wuhan" (110 uses), and "CoronavirusChino" (87 times).

At a time when people are concerned about their own safety, Dr. Sylvie Briand, Director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness for WHO, said WHO officials work hard to clarify the information that's available to prevent panic. This task falls on the WHO technical risk communication and social media teams, which track and respond to "myths and rumors," according to WHO.

The military documents listed the top 10 performing tweets shared by the tracked Russian accounts, with the ten posts with the most engagements related to the coronavirus outbreak. (The information in the slide about the top hashtags appears to have come from The Alliance for Securing Democracy.)

First, with 17,500 social media interactions, was: "Russia closes border with China in its Far East due to coronavirus outbreak." The second, which received 6,500 interactions, read: "First two cases of coronavirus confirmed in Russia, both Chinese citizens."

The other two posts about coronavirus detailed comments made by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross which suggest the epidemic could be good for the economy (4,600 interactions) and the "deadliest day for China" after a new record was set for the number of newly reported victims in a 24-hour window.

The most active Russian-backed accounts during the selected time period were RT's Spanish-language account (1,658 tweets), Sputnik's Turkish-language page (1,122 tweets), and Sputnik's English-language channel (1,046 tweets).

Those with the most likes and retweets during the week analyzed were RT's Spanish-language account (232,700 likes and 113,300 retweets), Sputnik's Turkish-language page (134,300 likes and 19,000 retweets), and RT's English-language channel (75,00 likes and 39,900 retweets).

Correction 2/06/20, 2:38 p.m. ET: A previous version of this article misrepresented a top official's level of awareness about Russian social media accounts. Newsweek regrets the error.

Update 2/11/20, 4:00 p.m.ET: The story has been updated to note that the "Top Hashtags" slide in the military presentation appears to have been part of a report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy.