GCHQ launches counter-attack against Russian anti-vaccine propaganda

GCHQ spies launch cyber counter-attack against anti-vaccine propaganda being spread by Russia

  • The government is determined to tackle anti-vaxxer propaganda spread online 
  • GCHQ has launched a new campaign targeting hostile propaganda by Russia 
  • Russian propagandists are targeting the Oxford vaccine with monkey memes 

GCHQ has launched a cyber counter-attack against anti-vaccine propaganda spread by Russia, according to sources. 

The spy agency has begun its cyber operation targeting hostile states and is using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material shared by Islamic State.

The activity being targeted is linked to Moscow, who is thought to be attempting to exploit the chaos caused by the pandemic to undermine the West and strengthen its own interests. 

It is the latest step in the government’s bid to tackle a rising tide of fake information being spread about a vaccine. 

The need to shutdown such information is growing increasingly more important as scientists close in on a reliable vaccine against Covid-19.  

An unsettling portrayal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson as ‘bigfoot’ walking along Whitehall with a folder headed ‘AstraZeneca’. The image is part of anti-vaccine propaganda spread in Russia

America’s Uncle Sam appears in a crude image with the message: ‘I want you – to take the monkey vaccine’ in  a propaganda message shared on a Russian news programme

The government has taxed GCHQ with stopping and taking down anti-vaxxers online backed by hostile states like Russia 

A government source told the Times: ‘GCHQ has been told to take out antivaxers online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda.’  

Tactics thought to be considered are the take down of websites and content linked to hostile states and the disruption of the actors behind the fake news. 

GCHQ will attempt to do this by encrypting the state’s own data so they cannot access it and by blocking communication between hostile groups. 

Russia is behind a high proportion of false information about the coronavirus, one source has claimed. 

GCHQ will only target foreign states and is blocked from chasing false information produced by ordinary people.   

It comes after an investigation last month discovered a smear campaign launched in Russia to discredit the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University scientists.

It aims to spread fear about the vaccine with ridiculous claims that it will turn people into apes because it uses a chimpanzee virus.

Images and video clips suggesting any vaccine made in the UK would be dangerous are circulating on Russian social media.

Some were shown on the Russian TV programme Vesti News, said to be the country’s equivalent of the BBC’s Newsnight.

Another image shows a chimpanzee in a lab coat from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – which is manufacturing the vaccine – brandishing a syringe

One image shows people lining up outside an AstraZeneca tent, with apes and gorillas leaving the other side 

One image shows Boris Johnson walking into Downing Street, but it has been manipulated to make him look like a yeti. The picture is captioned: ‘I like my bigfoot vaccine’.

Another image shows a chimpanzee in a lab coat from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – which is manufacturing the vaccine – brandishing a syringe.

America’s Uncle Sam appears in another crude image with the message: ‘I want you – to take the monkey vaccine’.

The campaign has the potential to damage the Oxford programme by appealing to anti-vaccine fanatics.

It is aimed to hit sales in countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V jab.

Now, GCHQ is expected to take action against hostile states spreading similar disinformation. 

However, it is understood Britain cannot attack websites based in the United States or the other Five Eyes nations of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Instead, the UK must defer to partner agencies based in those nations, although free speech laws in countries like the US pose an issue. 

As well as the new GCHQ drive, a secretive army unit specialising in information warfare is also thought to be involved in countering fake narratives about the coronavirus.

General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, has confirmed that the 77 Brigade is ‘helping to quash rumours about misinformation but also to counter disinformation’. 

Defence secretary Ben Wallace has also previously highlighted Russia’s role in fake news campaigns during the pandemic.

In the summer, Russia was accused by Britain, the US and Canada of trying to hack western coronavirus vaccine research. 

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