Feb 17, 2021 - Technology

How countries amplify COVID disinformation

Illustration of a hand cursor with crossed fingers.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China, Russia and Iran — drawing on one another’s online disinformation — amplified false theories that the COVID-19 virus originated in a U.S. bioweapons lab or was designed by Washington to weaken their countries, according to a nine-month investigation by AP and the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

Why it matters: Through a series of overlapping, if slapdash, efforts, America's global adversaries benefited from mutually reinforcing counter-narratives propagated online that aimed to falsely place responsibility for the pandemic on the U.S. and often to sow doubt on its actual origin within China.

  • The extensive use by these countries of each other's COVID-19 disinformation shows just how international — and mutually reinforcing — these online networks have become.
  • The investigation was “based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms,” says the AP.

Details: Although seemingly less coordinated than other such efforts, extensive anti-American COVID-19 disinformation efforts first popped up in Russia, according to the AP/ DFRLab report.

  • A Russian military media outlet was the first identified publication that ran a story advancing the claim that COVID-19 was American, not Chinese, in origin.
  • In the first few months of 2020, “more than 70 articles appeared in pro-Kremlin media making similar bioweapons claims in Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, English and German,” writes AP.

However, “it was China — not Russia — that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak,” says the report.

  • By March 2020, Chinese state media outlets, as well as diplomats on social media, were pushing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the United States at Fort Detrick in Maryland and brought to China during the 2019 Military World Games, which were held that October in Wuhan.
  • That month, “an anonymous petition appeared on the White House’s now-defunct ‘We the People’ portal. It urged U.S. authorities to clarify whether the virus had been developed at Fort Detrick and leaked from the lab. The petition was lavishly covered by China’s state media, despite getting only 1,426 signatures,” writes AP.
  • By May, Chinese state media broadcast “a slick documentary about Fort Detrick set to spooky music that has been viewed on its YouTube channel more than 82,000 times” and “played on China’s Bilibili platform 378,000 times.”
  • Chinese diplomats also began extensively posting COVID-related disinformation on Twitter, which is banned in China itself.
  • On popular social networks within China like Weibo, viral posts drew from Russian and Chinese disinformation to spread the false “U.S. bioweapons” theory of COVID-19.

Of note: Instead of using botnets or Russian IRA-type troll farms, the Chinese relied on their vast network of state-affiliated news outlets, as well as Chinese government accounts on social media, to propagate these false theories, writes DFRLab.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, also began to push out false claims — Russian and Chinese in origin — that COVID-19 was a U.S. bioweapon designed to target Washington’s enemies.

  • The Iranians’ false allegations “were, in turn, amplified by Russian media and picked up in China, where they fueled further speculation,” writes AP.
  • An Iranian disinformation network active on Facebook, Google and Twitter also “activated a network of websites and covert social media accounts to accuse the U.S. of engineering the virus and praise[d] the leadership and benevolence of China,” writes the AP.

Yes, but: The DFRLab report also explores how a separate, earlier stream of disinformation — revolving around the false assertion that COVID-19 was purposefully leaked from a Chinese lab — spread online through U.S.-based far-right networks like QAnon and eventually bled into right-wing media more broadly.

  • “The traditional view about conspiracy theories is that they exist along the fringes of the information space, apart from the mainstream and official communications. However, in the United States, these conspiracy theories have permeated all layers of discourse, particularly being embraced by elements of mainstream media and individual conservative policymakers during the Trump administration,” writes DFRLab.
  • Chinese government disinformation pushing the false “U.S. bioweapons thesis” about COVID-19 followed this earlier U.S.-based conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon — paralleling and inverting it.
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