- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2021

As the Chinese government is engaged in a global disinformation campaign regarding the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department has been quietly pushing back against “baseless conspiracies” around the world, according to the department’s Global Engagement Center.

The confirmation of the campaign by the center marks the first time the Biden administration has publicly accused China of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus origin and disclosed efforts to neutralize Beijing’s narrative.

“The department has been pushing back against Beijing’s disinformation and other manipulative tactics in the information space since the start of the pandemic,” the center said in a statement to The Washington Times. “While the U.S. government takes a holistic approach to identifying and countering COVID-19 disinformation regardless of the source, we remain concerned by baseless conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus amplified by officials from the People’s Republic of China.”

A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

After initially stating the virus began from an infection at a wild animal market in Wuhan, China’s government spokesmen have launched a global information offensive claiming the coronavirus came from outside the country.

First, Chinese state media claimed the virus was brought to Wuhan by U.S. Army soldiers that took part in a conference in Wuhan in October 2019. That claim was denied by U.S. government spokesmen but amplified by Zhou Lijian, deputy Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a tweet asserting the American Army launched the pandemic.

The outspoken Mr. Zhou, regarded as part of Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomatic corps, tweeted about a recent Chinese study that, he said, provided “further evidence that the virus originated in the U.S.”

Next, the China’s Communist Party-affiliated CGTN state-controlled network produced a video asserting the virus was created at the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick, Md. biological warfare research center.

That narrative was recently amplified by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, who issued a call last month for the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) to conduct a probe of the allegations that the virus originated in the United States and at the military lab.

China’s public diplomacy regarding Fort Detrick appeared designed to deflect from growing U.S. and Western reports suggesting the virus actually leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, based on similar virus work conducted at the lab and covert cooperation between the lab and the Chinese military.

A more recent propaganda theme promoted by Chinese scientists is that the virus entered China on frozen food packaging, an idea dismissed by many virus experts as extremely unlikely.

A joint WHO-Chinese report on the coronavirus origin failed to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak but said the frozen food theory deserved study while dismissing the Wuhan lab leak thesis as “extremely unlikely.”

Countering disinformation

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) statement did not identify specific actions being taking by the State Department and other agencies in the counter-disinformation effort. A GEC spokeswoman declined to answer questions beyond the statement.

The Biden administration has identified countering foreign disinformation as an element of its interim national security guidance.

Sen. Marco Rubio said China’s government has provided misleading and inaccurate statistics throughout the pandemic and silenced people who tried to reveal the facts on the scale of the outbreak and its origins. 

“The Chinese Community Party’s self-serving attempts to protect its image have resulted in catastrophic outcomes throughout the rest of the world and proven yet again that it cannot be trusted to act as a responsible world power,” Mr. Rubio, Florida Republican, said.

“We must hold Beijing responsible for its deadly obstruction. I encourage the Biden Administration to share any information it has about the CCP’s obstruction with the American people and the world,” he told The Times. 

According to the GEC, the U.S. government is urging all nations, including China, “to undertake any necessary scientific studies and to rapidly and transparently share all relevant information that is needed to better understand the origins and spread of this pandemic.”

“This will enable the global community to better prepare to prevent and respond to future pandemic threats,” the GEC said.

The center has shifted existing counter-disinformation programs to target false pandemic information and propaganda being spread around the world among “susceptible audiences,” the statement said.

“The GEC aims to increase societal resilience to disinformation and champion independent media,” the statement said.

The GEC has been working with State Department officials to support local organizations in nations in Africa, Europe and South American to provide and promote accurate information about the pandemic. The center also works with independent and non-government organizations that track disinformation and social media manipulation by governments, including the Chinese government, as well as non-state actors, the statement said.

State Department officials are continuing to work with American and international partners “to provide a global response to countering disinformation.”

The statement did not provide specific examples of Chinese disinformation on the virus origin.

A congressional commission focused on China stated in its latest annual report that Beijing has adopted aggressive, Russian-style disinformation practices to discredit democracy, promote Chinese-style authoritarianism and deflect international focus on the coronavirus origin.

Beijing launched a wide-ranging disinformation campaign seeking to blame the United States and others for originating the virus while distracting global attention from its actual origins in Wuhan,” the report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated.

Learning from Russia

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Beijing has stepped up its disinformation efforts in a bid to discredit democracies and promote Beijing policies. The Chinese information campaign has had limited success, he stated in a recent report.

“Although China once shied away from the aggressive, conspiratorial type of disinformation favored by Russia, it has increasingly turned to this approach during the coronavirus pandemic,” Mr. Kurlantzick said. “Beijing is both manipulating factual information and spreading disinformation — or willfully false information — to distract from the origins of the virus, highlight the failures of the United States, and promote China as a global leader.”

Chinese propagandists have promoted the notion that authoritarian regimes, including China, Russia and Iran, have handled the pandemic better than democratic nations as part of a broader effort to discredit the U.S.-backed postwar global international order.

Chinese messaging campaigns have utilized thousands of fake social media accounts in the West to push its information campaigns.

The social media giant Twitter in June removed some 23,750 highly active accounts and about 150,000 related accounts that the social media company said promoted and amplified pro-Beijing messages related to the pandemic.

Twitter said in a statement that about 170,000 accounts linked to China were using “manipulative and coordinated” efforts to spread narratives favorable to the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Kurlantzick also said U.S. intelligence agencies have reported that Chinese intelligence agents or those linked to the spy services used text messaging and messaging apps to sow panic in the United States about the virus.

“U.S. officials had not previously noticed Chinese intelligence agents trying to spread disinformation by texting citizens’ mobile phones, a strategy that requires significant knowledge of U.S. infrastructure,” he said.

The impact of the Chinese disinformation on the virus has been “modestly effective,” Mr. Kurlantzick said.

Beijing has spread some COVID-19 rumors, but Chinese leaders appear wary of fully following Moscow’s path of outright trolling,” he said. “Doing so could undermine China’s simultaneous efforts to portray itself as a responsible global leader.”

However, Mr. Kurlantzick says some of Beijing’s disinformation on the virus are hitting home.

For example, China and Russia are coordinating efforts in the battle for global information control. The result is “more dangerous messaging almost surely will increase,” Mr. Kurlantzick said.

In addition to virus origin disinformation, China also has spread false, critical information about American-made COVID-19 vaccines in a bid to sow distrust in the use of vaccines, according to Hannah Bailey at the Oxford Internet Institute.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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