China, Russia and Iran are flooding the global information space with false claims about the new coronavirus, according to U.S. officials, who say one of the biggest lies — that the virus that causes COVID-19 is a U.S. bioweapon and was brought to China by U.S. Army personnel — is just the latest in a “surge of propaganda” aimed at undermining America’s image on the world stage.
Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are using a vast web of social media accounts, fake news outlets and state-controlled global satellite media to promote false claims by academics and, at times, government officials to blame Washington for the crisis now gripping most of humanity.
The head of a key State Department counterdisinformation office said U.S. officials are ramping up their own efforts to counter lies about the new coronavirus that were first seeded by Russia in January and that China is now pushing in a bid to make Beijing appear as a superior global power to the United States.
U.S. Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, who leads the department’s Global Engagement Center, told The Washington Times on Sunday that the Chinese are “engaged in an all-out aggressive campaign to try to reshape the global narrative around the coronavirus, essentially to the degree of trying to provide an alternate reality of what has actually happened since December.”
Ms. Gabrielle made the assertion in an exclusive interview amid a widening row between Washington and Beijing that burst into public view last week when the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested on Twitter that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Teams of international scientists, including several from inside China, have agreed for more than a month that the virus came from a “wet market” in Wuhan — where fish, poultry and other animals are slaughtered on the premises — and that any other claims about the virus’ origins are bogus.
But Ms. Gabrielle and other U.S. officials say that has not stopped three of the world’s top purveyors of state-sponsored propaganda, led by China, from pouncing in a moment of global panic to try to sully America’s image.
“Two narrative tracks that we’re seeing advanced by China is malign information trying to finger the U.S. as the origin of the coronavirus, and then the second narrative track is what we call ‘Brand China,’ which is the [Chinese government’s] effort to try and turn the crisis into a news story about the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party as opposed to democratic systems that have allegedly mishandled the crisis,” Ms. Gabrielle told The Times. “So [it’s] basically a ‘China good, everyone else bad’ narrative.”
“We’ve seen China mobilize its global messaging apparatus, and this includes state media, Chinese diplomats writing articles in local or overseas media to basically push out the overall narrative that depicts China as the world’s model and global leader under the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. “This has caused us to have to react with a full-spectrum activation of our own public messaging and diplomatic engagement, and really just having to push access to fact-based information by our own communicators so they’re able to counter these false narratives with local audiences.”
The Global Engagement Center is spearheading the effort, with a goal of reminding audiences that authoritarian regimes clamp down on the free flow of truthful information and use government-controlled organs to spread lies.
Inside the U.S. response
It’s anything but easy.
The risk is always there that U.S.-government information operations can backfire and draw accusations of using propaganda. There is also concern that drawing attention to false narratives might serve to promote those lies.
“Once a false narrative is out there, it’s almost impossible to undo, and repeating that false narrative when trying to correct it reinforces it,” said Ms. Gabrielle. “So it makes it very tricky.”
The Global Engagement Center operates mainly behind the scenes at the State Department, which does not publicize the number of people working inside the center. It grew in recent years from the now-dissolved Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
In the Obama-era, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was a hub through which U.S. officials used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate anti-jihadi messaging worldwide. Then came the 2016 U.S. elections.
American intelligence findings that Russia used social media to meddle in U.S. democracy prompted Congress to reconstitute the Global Engagement Center with a broader mission: to expose and counter foreign state and nonstate propaganda aimed at undermining the U.S. and its allies around the world.
A core tenet was the establishment of an “Information Access Fund,” a mechanism that can be used to channel funding to outside organizations that engage in a range of counterdisinformation efforts in several countries.
By 2018, U.S. officials were comparing the Global Engagement Center’s mission to that of a Cold War-era initiative pushed by the Reagan administration, the Active Measures Working Group. U.S. officials used the operation to expose and undermine Soviet propaganda and subversion in Europe.
The circle of lies
On the novel coronavirus, the Global Engagement Center’s radar went up in January around a Russian government-backed effort to “seed the disinformation space with the notion that the virus was created by Americans,” Ms. Gabrielle said. The center, she added, discovered a “Kremlin-sponsored” push to spread lies that the virus was created either by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or in a U.S. government lab.
U.S. officials responded by circulating information showing how the lies began with Russian officials and were promoted in a coordinated effort via Russian state-sponsored social media accounts and Russian government-owned global media such as Sputnik and RT, as well as through swarms of fake personas online and conspiracy websites pretending to be news outlets.
Some international media initially ran big with the information, but the Chinese and Iranians have doubled down with their own disinformation campaigns built from the original claims seeded by the Russians, Ms. Gabrielle said.
“We’ve tracked a surge in their disinformation and propaganda operations, and they’re picking up and promoting what were originally false claims pushed by the Kremlin,” she said. “They are mutually reinforcing each other in efforts to flood the information space with false narratives. So it’s basically a convergence of Russian, Chinese and Iranian disinformation operations.”
The Russians have also ramped up their efforts, with RT promoting false claims by military commanders from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about the origins of the coronavirus based on Russia’s earlier disinformation campaign.
“So Russia pushes out a false narrative, the IRGC then parrots that narrative, then RT tweets it out as though it came from the IRGC chief in the first place,” Ms. Gabrielle said. “Another example we’ve seen is the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who used Twitter to highlight a false narrative from a source that’s already been identified as a supporter of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem.”
Mr. Zhao tweeted Thursday in English that it “might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” and that the “US owe us an explanation!” He also promoted the “Centre for Research on Globalization” or “GlobalResearch.ca,” a discredited Canada-based operation that published an article under the headline “Further Evidence That the Virus Originated in the U.S.”
U.S. officials were outraged by the tweet. “GlobalResearch.ca is a disinformation outlet based in Canada that we’ve seen pushing out Kremlin narratives,” said Ms. Gabrielle, who added that disinformation promotion by Russia, Iran and China converged before the coronavirus outbreak but has now taken on expanded momentum.
Murky waters ahead
The Zhao episode has added tension to an already fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s tweet may have been a response to comments last week by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who chastised Beijing for initially covering up the coronavirus outbreak. He said the cover-up “probably cost the world community two months.”
The Zhao tweet may also have been an attempt to subversively respond to President Trump’s assertion Wednesday that COVID-19 is caused by a “foreign virus” and “we all know where it came from.”
Either way, the administration’s response to Mr. Zhao was swift. Chinese Ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai was summoned Friday to the State Department, where David R. Stillwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, expressed strong disappointment with the Chinese disinformation.
A senior U.S. official told The Times on background that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s tweet “was a tipping point for us at a very senior level within the State Department [and] we decided we’re not going to let this continue further.”
The official said U.S. officials decided to draw a “line in the sand.”
“We are going to make a concerted and public effort to counter disinformation by any regime on this because there are lasting consequences. The Chinese and Russians and Iranians are putting out these conspiracy theories and false narratives. It is deeply irresponsible, not just for America, but for the world. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic that is unprecedented. The fact that these regimes are taking the time to deflect blame from their own actions is deeply irresponsible.”
The question is whether the damage has been done.
“Once a lie is out there in the information space, there’s no silver bullet. I don’t have a false-information-zapping bazooka. I wish I did,” said Ms. Gabrielle. “What we do have are best practices and, in the case of the lies that are out there right now, that means engaging through our official platforms to counter them.”
She stressed that the Global Engagement Center is playing “the long game,” and that means engaging credible voices that can support truthful narratives worldwide.
What you want to do is essentially create an environment where populations and audiences are less vulnerable to disinformation in general,” Ms. Gabrielle said. “Best practices for countering false narratives long term are more strategic in nature.”
“We’ve also supported things like the development of secure networks for investigative journalists in sensitive environments to help enable them to share information,” she said.
Exposing previous examples of disinformation by questionable sources, she said, is part of the effort to “flood the space” with accurate information. That, she said, can involve “engaging third-party credible voices, for example, non-U.S. government voices to be able to get the truth out there.”
Third-party voices can include fact-checking organizations, nongovernment organizations, investigative journalists, other governments, local community leaders or social media influencers, she said. “We work with organizations worldwide to do that long-term approach of increasing resiliency, decreasing vulnerability and then inoculating audiences to disinformation.”