China and Russia spread disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic in a bid to undermine the United States and support Chinese and Russian narratives around the world, according to a report by the RAND Corp. made public Monday.
The report by the defense think tank stated that the disinformation has contributed to deep disagreements on “established truth,” or what the authors call “truth decay” — the shift away from public discourse over facts and analysis.
“Truth Decay is a serious threat to both domestic U.S. and international security, one that is being exacerbated by malign efforts from a variety of national bad actors,” the report said.
The report also concluded, “much of the disinformation on social media is spread by a relatively small number of malign users.”
“Russian and Chinese English-language news appear to be manipulated to promote certain narratives, particularly ones that promote Russian and Chinese geopolitical interests at the expense of the United States,” the report says. “They also appear to promote a variety of different conspiracy theories, especially those that portray the pandemic as an opportunity for governments and elites to take advantage of citizens and those that cast doubt on the origin of COVID-19. This represents serious misconduct on the part of Russia’s and China’s governments.”
The report calls for creating a high-technology system of detecting anti-U.S. disinformation from hostile states. The system could expose foreign government efforts to influence the news landscape and make their efforts more visible.
The authors are RAND experts Christian Johnson and William Marcellino. Mr. Johnson is a physicist who specializes in applying quantitative scientific techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to public policy problems. Mr. Marcellino is a behavioral scientist and retired Marine who specializes in text analytics and information as a war fighting function.
Disinformation is defined as the deliberate spreading of false or misleading information to achieve political or economic objectives. Other elements of the threat include misinformation, or the unintentional spreading of false information, and fake news, defined as news reporting based intentionally on falsehoods.
State-linked news agencies in China and Russia promoted conspiracy theories about the pandemic and public health measures used in fighting it.
“Examples of news in this pillar are the suggestion that COVID-19 is a bioweapon or otherwise engineered in a laboratory, or the idea that contact-tracing efforts are part of an effort by government and technology companies to track citizens,” the report said.
The disinformation promoted by China and Russia involved anti-U.S. conspiracy theories about the virus, while Chinese information operations sought to advance pro-China news while “laundering” Beijing’s mishandling of the outbreak and stonewalling on the origins of the virus.
Early in the pandemic, Russian media reinforced Chinese state media efforts to distort the facts about China’s handling of the pandemic.
China’s government silenced doctors who tried to sound the alarm on the outbreak in Wuhan after the first cases appeared in December 2019. China also failed to share virus samples with international medical experts and falsely told the World Health Organization at first that the virus was not spread among humans.
The Chinese government also failed to limit international travel from Wuhan during the Lunar New Year celebrations, increasing the spread of the virus.
The report was based on a scientific analysis of 43 news sources, including nine Russian and five Chinese propaganda outlets. The remaining sources were U.S. and British news outlets.
The study then applied an analytical process called Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), which identifies topics and words, and clusters of words in a group of 247,315 news articles published between Jan. 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2020, the main months of the pandemic.
The analysis produced four disinformation topics promoted by China and Russia.
They included Russia’s promotion of conspiracy theories designed to fuel fears of U.S. government authoritarianism in responding to the pandemic, and China’s “reputation laundering” aimed at distracting readers from the fact the virus originated in China.
“Spreading uncertainty about the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19 is performed via articles that dismiss the so-called ‘lab-leak theory’ and that promote research about a natural origin — or simply claim that there is no way of knowing the origin,” the report said.
A declassified U.S. intelligence assessment made much the same conclusion in a report made public last month.