National Security

Officials say China amplified disinformation about coronavirus to spread fear: NYT

U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly determined that Chinese operatives helped spread messages that aimed to spark alarm about the coronavirus pandemic starting in mid-March.

The New York Times, citing six American officials across different intelligence agencies, reported Wednesday that the messages prompted the intelligence apparatus to examine the new techniques China, Russia and other nations are using to spread disinformation about the outbreak.

In particular, they were startled by the ability of the disinformation campaign to pop up in the form of text messages on many Americans’ cellphones, an amplification technique that some of the officials told the Times they had not seen before.

Many of the messages shared a common theme in which the receivers were encouraged to share the warnings that President Trump was poised to lock down the country in a mandatory quarantine. The spread of the messages became so far-reaching that the White House National Security Council (NSC) publicly denounced the rumors as “FAKE.”

“Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown,” the NSC tweeted at the time.

The messages often claimed that they heard from a close friend or family member who works at the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon or some other government agency that the government was preparing for a full-scale lockdown. 

“I received a call very late last night from a source that works for Homeland security. He said that they are preparing to mobilize the national guard. Preparing to dispatch them across the US along with military. Next they will call in 1st responders. He said they are preparing to announce a nationwide 1 week quarantine for all citizens,” one of the messages read. 

“All businesses closed. Everyone at home. They were told to pack and be prepared for up to 30 days deployment which he said means they may extend the quarantine up to 30 days. He told me to notify our family members and have them stock up and be prepared. They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” it continued, ending with a request for the reader to “forward to your network.”

The officials declined to discuss the underlying intelligence that ties China to this disinformation campaign, citing the need to protect sources and methods, according to the Times.

And two of them also told the newspaper that they did not believe Beijing crafted the messages, but rather sought to heighten those that were already in circulation. And through social media, operating like a well-oiled machine for spreading information — particularly information that inspires fear — the messages quickly became widespread.

The Times found that there was significant dissemination of such lockdown messages on Facebook, which came as they were also being shared via text messages.

Some of the techniques appear to be pulled from Russia’s playbook during the 2016 election, in which Kremlin-backed trolls created fake social media accounts to peddle the disinformation by pushing messages towards sympathetic U.S. citizens, who then helped their efforts.

Officials told the Times they also appear to be utilizing encrypted messaging apps, which makes such communication far harder for law enforcement and outside researchers to track.

Lawmakers and experts have long warned that other foreign nations would seek to copy Russia and seek to sow discord and inflame partisan tensions with disinformation campaigns after the Kremlin saw few consequences for its influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election. They have also warned that the techniques would morph and grow more sophisticated. The Times report indicates such a change is now occurring.

Outside bipartisan research groups like the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the Center for a New American Security are both reportedly expected to bolster claims of Chinese disinformation in a report next month.

The Chinese government has denied the recent accusations as “nonsense,” according to the Times. And other government officials have repeatedly denied statements from U.S. officials that China repeatedly hid or provided misleading information about the outbreak.

“We urge the U.S. to stop political manipulation, get its own house in order and focus more on fighting the epidemic and boosting the economy,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a Friday press conference, dubbing it as “smear and stigmatization.”

China has come under intense criticism for its initial handling of outbreak, which is believed to have come from a wet market in Wuhan, China.

Officials initially downplayed the severity of the virus and claimed it could not be passed between humans. They also denied offers to have representatives from the World Health Organization and U.S. medical officials come examine the pathogen in China.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China, Russia and Iran of carrying out disinformation campaigns related to the coronavirus pandemic, in what he described as an apparent effort to sow fear and confusion over the Trump administration’s efforts to combat the outbreak.

“There are coordinated efforts to disparage what America is doing and our activity to do all the things President Trump has set into motion,” the secretary said during a press briefing on the coronavirus at the time.

“It is pretty diffused, unfortunately. But we have certainly seen it come from places like China, and Russia and Iran,” he said.

The Trump administration has also come under fire for not taking earlier action and being better prepared for the outbreak, despite the warning signs flashing across China and Italy in January and February.

And while Republican lawmakers have increasingly sought to further amplify China’s missteps in addressing COVID-19, the Trump administration is now stepping up its role in fixing the spotlight on Beijing as well. One state — Missouri — has taken the step of filing a lawsuit against Beijing over its handling of the deadly pathogen that has since killed more than 40,000 Americans. 

Tags China Disinformation Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Propaganda techniques
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