Ignore bad information from Russia and China on the coronavirus crisis
Social media is great for keeping in touch with family and friends while we practice social distancing. It offers an easy and convenient way for people to check in with loved ones, watch movies together, and play games. But it is also a great way for states like Russia and China to drive us apart and sow chaos by pushing false information. It is important to remember that Russia and China have and continue to claim that the United States is their enemy. Their national strategies and foreign policies reflect this.
This is nothing new. The intelligence community report on interference by Russia in the 2016 election is loaded with examples. Indeed, Moscow tried to inflame racial division in the United States by pitting African Americans against law enforcement, stirred up religious animosity between Christian and Muslims, and more. Moscow found cracks in our society and sought to add more fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, it had some success.
During the late stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched what is known as Operation Infektion, an active measure campaign that sought to place the blame for the AIDS epidemic on American biological weapons experiments. If you are wondering whether or not Operation Infektion was successful, there are plenty of conspiracy videos out there that echo what is, essentially, Soviet Union propaganda. With the coronavirus pandemic, Moscow is simply dusting off an old playbook during this crisis.
Outlets that back the Kremlin are pushing a host of competing narratives designed to create confusion, muddy the waters, and divide the Western alliance. This is everything from tweets suggesting that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, to suggesting it will end civilization as we know it, and others echoing propaganda and speculating if the coronavirus is a biological weapon that was deployed by London or Washington.
Now Beijing is playing this game. China, where the coronavirus originated and where the Communist Party sought to conceal the epidemic late last year, is attempting to create an alternative narrative where it is the victim. This falsehood suggests that the coronavirus was introduced to Wuhan by members of the United States Army, which as the New York Times noted is a claim that does not have any “shred of evidence” to support.
The spokesperson for Chinese foreign ministry has pushed this conspiracy theory. The Chinese ambassador to South Africa has also suggested that the coronavirus might have originated from outside China. Ironically, both these officials spread these claims on Twitter, which is banned in China by the Communist Party. To be fair, however, the Chinese ambassador to the United States distanced himself from the claims, saying that it is “crazy” to spread such rumors and that such “speculation” does no good.
Why is China starting a disinformation campaign? The Communist Party has long been practitioners of propaganda at home and abroad, but it is trying to deflect blame for its initial improper handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The worldwide condemnation of its concealment, which slowed a global preventive response, is a threat to its image and strength. While it likely will not lead to the collapse of the Communist Party, any political or national vulnerability is clearly viewed as an existential threat.
The Communist Party is also running a soft power campaign that aims to make it the hero of this crisis. Beijing sent hundreds of doctors, nurses, masks, ventilators, and testing kits to Italy. Unsurprisingly, Italy, which is suffering from one of the worst outbreaks, welcomed the aid and praised this assistance. China sent aid to Iran, Iraq, Spain, France, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Beijing is crafting the narrative that it heroically overcame the coronavirus outbreak at home and is rewriting the story that it is the international hero coming to the aid of the countries in need.
We must not fall for these disinformation campaigns, and we cannot play into their narratives. Washington should take action to hold the Chinese foreign ministry accountable for what the spokesperson tweets and must call out Moscow for spreading its many blatant falsehoods. Hamilton 68, a program by the German Marshall Fund, is a great way to track the efforts of disinformation by Russia. Now we also need one for China.
But much like stopping the spread of the coronavirus, we all have a role in stopping the spread of disinformation. We must seek out trusted sources of information like the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. We must not share suspicious content on social media. If something sounds strange, it is probably strange for a reason.
Russia and China see the United States as a threat to their authoritarian regimes, and rightfully so. They want to sow division among us and our allies to ensure that we cannot hold them accountable. We as a country must come together to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and to stop their disinformation campaigns. Indeed, we have stopped Russia and China before, and it is time we work together and do it again.
Mike Rogers is a former member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire Chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a senior fellow with the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Follow him @RepMikeRogers.