U.S. says China, Russia cooperating to spread coronavirus disinformation online


China and Russia are increasingly cooperating to spread disinformation online about the coronavirus, with Beijing mimicking Moscow’s social media tactics to sow confusion, the U.S. agency tracking propaganda said Friday.

The coordination appears opportunistic and not an indication of government-to-government cooperation to shape the coronavirus narrative, said Lea Gabrielle, the special envoy to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), the organization charged with analyzing and combating propaganda online.

“We see this convergence as a result of what we consider to be pragmatism between the two actors who want to shape public understanding of the COVID pandemic for their own purposes,” she said in a briefing with reporters.

U.S. and Chinese relations have deteriorated over the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speculating that the virus came from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The U.S. intelligence community has said it agrees with the consensus of public health experts that the virus is not man-made nor genetically modified but can’t definitely rule out the outbreak could have started in a lab.

Beijing has denied such accusations and rebuked calls by Washington to take accountability for the pandemic, and rejected calls for an investigation.

Online, Beijing officials are increasingly shifting their messages from promoting China’s domestic and global response to the virus to attacking U.S. actions, and speculating the virus originated in America.

Gabrielle said the GEC has identified a 22-fold increase in the number of followers that the Chinese Communist Party official accounts are gaining on a daily basis, from an average of 30 to now more than 720 new followers per day.

Many of these accounts are newly created and follow many of the same officials.

“Now based on the characteristics, content, and behavior of these accounts, the GEC assesses linkages to the Chinese Communist Party are highly probable,” Gabrielle said. “We also assess that this is a coordinated and interconnected effort. Nearly every diplomatic account shares at least one follower with every other account, with some instances of diplomatic accounts sharing more than a thousand followers.”

The GEC says Russia is increasingly aiding amplification of Chinese messaging with its own network of state-backed media and bot accounts. Most recently, the GEC monitored Chinese and Russian accounts retweeting posts that sought to raise concerns about U.S.-funded biolabs in former Soviet Union countries.

“Most recently we saw CCP and Russian proxies recirculate false narratives about U.S.-funded biolabs in the former Soviet Union, as just one example,” Gabrielle said, referring to the Communist Party of China.

“So even before the COVID-19 crisis, we assessed a certain level of coordination between Russia and the PRC in the realm of propaganda, but with this pandemic the cooperation has accelerated rapidly,” she added regarding the People’s Republic of China.

Gabrielle said the Chinese efforts of disinformation are being focused world-wide, but the GEC documented the most shared followers on accounts related to the European region.

China has sought to grow closer with European countries as the U.S. has criticized multilateral bodies, like the World Health Organization of being “China-centric” and adopting Beijing’s narrative around the origins of the coronavirus.

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