In Brief

Coronavirus: GCHQ launches war against Russian anti-vaccine propaganda

State-sponsored disinformation campaigns are being blocked and agents locked out of their accounts

UK intelligence agents are reportedly using techniques developed to eliminate terrorist propaganda in a fresh push to prevent the spread of Russian anti-vaccine disinformation.

“It is the latest move by cyberagents to counter activity linked to Moscow whose aim is to exploit the pandemic in order to undermine the West and boost Russian interests,” The Times reports.

Last month, reports emerged that social media accounts run from Russia had been spreading fake news and images that suggested the Oxford University-developed Covid-19 vaccine could turn people into monkeys.  “One state TV channel even ran images of a suit-clad prime minister Boris Johnson with the hirsute features of a chimp,” HuffPost reports.

The flimsy basis for the far-fetched claim was that the Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus found in chimpanzees to carry its active ingredient into the human immune system.

The chief motive for the misinformation campaign is financial: Moscow is trying to persuade governments to buy two Russian vaccines, neither of which “has completed the kind of extensive and rigorous three-phase trials” required in Europe and the US, says Washington D.C.-based news site NPR.

The Times reports that GCHQ is pushing back by “taking down hostile state-linked content and disrupting the operations of the cyberactors responsible for it, including encrypting their data so they cannot access it and blocking their communications with each other”.

Downing Street “considers tackling false information about immunisation as a high priority”, adds Reuters.

But GCHQ’s countermeasures are directed only at state-sponsored disinformation. “You wouldn’t get authorisation to go after cranks,” a government source told The Times.

“People have a right to say batshit stuff online.”

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