BRUSSELS — The rumors began almost as soon as the disease itself. Claims that a foreign adversary had unleashed a bioweapon emerged at the fringes of Chinese social media the same day China first reported the outbreak of a mysterious virus.
“Watch out for Americans!” a Weibo user wrote on Dec. 31, 2019. Today, a year after the World Health Organization warned of an epidemic of COVID-19 misinformation, that conspiracy theory lives on, pushed by Chinese officials eager to cast doubt on the origins of a pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives globally.
In Beijing, Washington and Moscow, political leaders and allied media effectively functioned as superspreaders, using their stature to amplify politically expedient conspiracies already in circulation. But it was China, not Russia, that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak.
A nine-month Associated Press investigation of state-sponsored disinformation conducted in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, shows how a rumor that the U.S. created the virus that causes COVID-19 was weaponized by the Chinese government and spread from the dark corners of the internet to millions around the globe. The analysis was based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms.
Chinese officials in turn were reacting to a powerful narrative, nursed by QAnon groups, President Trump and other leading Republicans, that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab and was unleashed on the world either accidentally or on purpose. Prominent voices in Russia and even Iran jumped onto the anti-U.S. bandwagon.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Beijing has used its expanding megaphone on Western social media to defend itself against hostile forces that seek to politicize the pandemic.
“All parties should firmly say ‘no’ to the dissemination of disinformation,” the ministry said in a statement to AP, but added, “In the face of trumped-up charges, it is justified and proper to bust lies and clarify rumors by setting out the facts.”
The battle to control the narrative about the origins of the virus has had global consequences in the fight against COVID-19. Anti-lockdown and anti-mask groups around the world called COVID-19 a hoax and a weapon, complicating public health efforts to slow the spread.
“This is like a virus, like COVID, a media pathogen,” said Kang Liu, a professor at Duke University who studies cultural politics and media in China. “We have a double pandemic: the real pathological virus and the pandemic of fear.”
On Jan. 26, a man from Inner Mongolia posted a video claiming that the new virus ravaging central China was a biological weapon engineered by the U.S. It was viewed 14,000 times on the Chinese app Kuaishou before it was taken down. The man was arrested, detained for 10 days and fined for spreading rumors.
Just six weeks later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry would broadcast the same conspiracy. The rumor was picked up by at least 30 Chinese diplomats and missions and amplified through China’s vast global network of state media outlets.
Meanwhile, powerful voices in the U.S., including Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans, were working to rebrand COVID-19 as “the China virus” and to amplify fringe theories that it was engineered by Chinese scientists.
Social media accounts that appeared to be pro-Trump or QAnon followers pushed the same line. They repeatedly retweeted identical content that claimed China created the virus as a biological weapon, researchers at the Australia Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology found.
As U.S. rhetoric intensified, China went on the offensive. On Feb. 22, the state-controlled People’s Daily ran a report highlighting speculation that the U.S. military brought the virus to China. It pushed the story globally through inserts in newspapers such as the Helsinki Times in Finland and The New Zealand Herald.
As China embraced the media information wars, it leaned on Russian disinformation strategy and infrastructure and turned to a long-established network of Kremlin proxies in the West to seed and spread messaging.
“One was amplifying the other. How much it was command controlled, how much it was opportunistic, it was hard to tell,” said Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia.
‘The truth as I see it’
In January, long before China began overtly spreading disinformation, Russian state media swept in to legitimize the theory that the U.S. engineered the virus as a weapon.
On Jan. 20, the Russian army’s media outlet, Zvezda, announced that the outbreak in China was linked to a biological weapons test. Zvezda cited a four-time failed political candidate named Igor Nikulin.
Mr. Nikulin claims to have worked with the United Nations on disarmament in Iraq from 1998 to 2003, but top U.N. officials at the time told AP they had no record of his service.
Mr. Nikulin said records of his U.N. work may have been destroyed and stuck by his theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 is a U.S. bioweapon — a claim that has been repeatedly debunked.
Over the next two months, online journal pieces and more than 70 articles appeared in pro-Kremlin media making similar bioweapons claims in Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, English and German, according to AP’s analysis of a database compiled by EUvsDisinfo, which tracks disinformation for the European Union.
Russian politicians joined the chorus. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalistic leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, suggested that the U.S. and its greedy pharmaceutical companies were to blame for the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nikulin kept flogging his theory, which morphed as the pandemic spread from an attack on China to an attack on Mr. Trump. U.S. officials say Russian intelligence had been covertly spreading COVID-19 disinformation, including claims that the virus was a U.S. bioweapon.
On Jan. 23, Beijing began to roll out the largest medical quarantine in modern history by sealing off tens of millions of people at the epicenter of the outbreak in central China. The images were harrowing, as people desperate to slip out thronged train stations.
Shortly after 11 a.m. the next day, Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, emailed a “worldwide alert” to 300 contacts warning, he claimed, that China had been developing the coronavirus as a bioweapon at a biosafety lab in Wuhan.
Over the next few weeks, Mr. Boyle refined his theory. He asserted that Chinese scientists did not develop the virus but took it from a North Carolina laboratory.
“This is clearly an offensive biological warfare agent,” Mr. Boyle told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on a Feb. 19 Infowars broadcast.
The theory spread via outlets such as One America News Network, a pro-Trump channel, Iran’s Press TV, Global Research and its erstwhile partner, the Strategic Culture Foundation, an online journal that masquerades as independent but is actually directed by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the State Department.
Mr. Boyle insisted that his conclusions were based on research and that he couldn’t stop conspiracy theorists or foreign governments from using his claims for their own ends.
“My job is to tell the truth as I see it,” he said.
On March 9, a public WeChat account called Happy Reading List reposted an essay claiming the U.S. military created SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, at a lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland and loosed it in China during the Military World Games, an international competition for military athletes held in Wuhan in October 2019.
The account, which has been suspended, was registered in May 2019 by a woman from Henan province in central China, who did not reply to messages. It’s not clear who first wrote the article, which can still be found on other WeChat accounts.
The next day, an anonymous petition appeared on the White House’s now-defunct “We the People” portal. It urged U.S. authorities to clarify whether the virus had been developed at Fort Detrick. The petition was lavishly covered by Chinese state media despite getting only 1,426 signatures, far shy of the 100,000 needed to merit a response from the White House.
On March 11, Larry Romanoff, who claims to be a former management consultant based in Shanghai, posted an article on Global Research Canada that cribbed heavily from the Happy Reading List posting and cited it as a source.
“There have been a number of stories where the origin of a story is in Russian-controlled space but it’s picked up by Global Research and then put forward as their own story. Then you get Russian media saying, ‘Western analysts in Canada say that,’” said Mr. Sarts, the NATO StratCom director.
Neither Mr. Romanoff nor Global Research responded to requests for comment.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, sent a series of tweets over 13 minutes the next night that launched what may be China’s first truly global digital experiment with overt disinformation.
“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” he tweeted. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
Twitter later added a fact-check warning to Mr. Zhao’s tweet about the U.S. Army, but only in English. An identical post in Mandarin carried no such alert. Twitter also put a fact-checking label on only one of Mr. Zhao’s two reposts of Global Research content.
Mr. Zhao’s tweets were now global news, and they hijacked mainstream discussion of the coronavirus. On Twitter alone, his tweets were cited over 99,000 times over the next six weeks, in at least 54 languages, according to analysis conducted by DFRLab.
China’s Global Times and at least 30 Chinese diplomatic accounts in France, Panama and elsewhere rushed to support Mr. Zhao. Venezuela’s foreign minister and RT’s correspondent in Caracas, as well as Saudi accounts close to the kingdom’s royal family, also significantly extended Mr. Zhao’s reach by helping launch his ideas into Spanish and Arabic.
“Clearly pushing these kinds of conspiracy theories, disinformation, does not usually result in any negative consequences for them,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund.
Despite the online information blitz, the Chinese government was besieged by demands for accountability over its handling of COVID-19’s emergence.
Within a month, China banned beef from four big Australian producers and slapped an 80% tariff on Australian barley. These moves were widely seen as retribution, though China has denied it.
Chinese officials and state media continued to promote made-in-America COVID-19 conspiracies.
State broadcaster CGTN jumped in on May 16 by releasing a slick documentary about Fort Detrick set to spooky music that has been viewed on its YouTube channel more than 82,000 times. In July and August, Mr. Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, rekindled the Fort Detrick conspiracy in tweets that have not been flagged for fact-checking.
“Much remains unclear about [Fort Detrick] and over 200 [U.S.] bio labs in the world,” he tweeted on Aug. 11.
On Jan. 14 this year, a team from the World Health Organization landed in China to investigate the origins of the outbreak. The next day, in one of the final acts of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department put out a “fact sheet” stating that the pandemic could be the result of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which it claimed had collaborated on secret projects with the Chinese military.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned those assertions as “the ‘last-day madness’ of ‘Mr. Liar,’” and the remarks went viral in China.
COVID-19 disinformation has been good for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within China, Mr. Zhao and his colleagues have a growing fan base, and their number of Twitter followers has soared. Mr. Zhao now has over 879,000 Twitter followers.
⦁ Associated Press reporters David Klepper, Farnoush Amiri, Beatrice Dupuy, Dake Kang, Peter Hamlin, Jeannie Ohm, Allen Breed, Francois Duckett and news researcher Si Chen contributed to this report.
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