As Virus Spreads, China and Russia See Openings for Disinformation

WASHINGTON — China and Russia have both seized on the novel coronavirus to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to sow doubts about the United States’ handling of the crisis and deflect attention from their own struggles with the pandemic, according to American intelligence officials and diplomats.

Kremlin-aligned websites aimed at Western audiences have trafficked in conspiracy theories to spread fear in Europe and political division in the United States, the officials said, noting that Russia’s diplomats and state-run news media have arguably been more restrained.

China has been more overtly aggressive. It has used a network of government-linked social media accounts to spread discredited, and sometimes contradictory, theories. And China has adopted Russia’s playbook for more covert operations, mimicking Kremlin disinformation campaigns and even using and amplifying some of the same conspiracy sites.

The propaganda campaigns show how both countries turned to a typical authoritarian tactic of spreading propaganda to undermine their shared adversary, the United States, rather than addressing public criticism of their own problems.

In the days to come, China is likely to back off the public spread of disinformation through its Foreign Ministry and network of embassies and to more fully embrace the more subtle Russian-style approach, relying on its intelligence services to spread misinformation about the origins of the virus and China’s handling of it, senior American intelligence officials assessed.

Washington and Beijing have reached a tentative détente, other American officials said, that calls for both sides to halt public attacks on each other about the virus, but officials are skeptical that the uneasy truce will hold.

One senior American official said China had signaled to the United States that it would throttle its disinformation in the face of criticism from European countries and the U.S. State Department. Other officials said China was merely shifting tactics, finding its disinformation campaign was less effective than it had hoped. And President Trump has moved toward conciliation, holding a telephone call with President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday night in which the two leaders “agreed to work together to defeat the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a White House summary of the conversation.

Diplomats and official accounts from Russia and China as well as Iran have sharply increased their dissemination of disinformation about the coronavirus since January, even repeating and amplifying one another’s propaganda and falsehoods, including anti-American conspiracy theories, said Lea Gabrielle, a special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center at the State Department.

“The Covid-19 crisis has really provided an opportunity for malign actors to exploit the information space for harmful purposes,” Ms. Gabrielle told reporters on Friday, referring to the disease caused by the virus. Teams at the department are working on countering the messages, she said.

China has a long history of propaganda and efforts to cajole the world into following its own narrative on geopolitical issues like Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong. While it pushes its policies and views, some openly anti-American, it rarely puts enormous resources behind fringe conspiracy theories.

But that has changed during the pandemic, intelligence officials and outside experts said. In a highly coordinated campaign, Chinese officials and institutions have spread talking points centered on two narratives: that the United States is to blame for the origins of the virus and that the Communist Party has successfully contained the virus after a hard-fought campaign, affirming the superiority of its system.

After remaining relatively quiet early in the year, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have in recent weeks amplified conspiratorial stories as the coronavirus outbreak has spread globally while China has claimed to have wrested it under control in the city of Wuhan where it originated.

Chinese officials appeared to have relied on borrowing falsehoods pushed by anti-American organizations cultivated by the Kremlin that already have an audience in Western countries. Some of the sites have received Russian money, according to experts.

On March 12, for instance, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, posted a link on Twitter to what he described as a “very much important” article that falsely described American origins of the coronavirus.

The article was from Global Research, a group based in Montreal that presents itself as a think tank but largely traffics in conspiracy theories, many of them pro-Russian and anti-American.

At least a dozen other Chinese Embassies around the world retweeted Mr. Zhao’s post. All told, more than 12,000 accounts have retweeted it and more than 20,000 users have liked it.

Other outlets that routinely push out disinformation subsequently picked up the theory and added their own twists. One of the main contributors to the far-right financial site ZeroHedge, who goes by the pseudonym “Tyler Durden” — the name of Brad Pitt’s character in the 1999 movie “Fight Club” — referred to Mr. Zhao’s tweet in a lengthy post on a lesser-known site and presented coronavirus as the “black swan that the globalists were waiting for (or planning) all along.”

Another site, Veterans Today, which traffics in conspiracy theories, many of them anti-American, claimed to “break” the untrue story of how an American sports team had brought the coronavirus to Wuhan in October. “No video or photos exist of the U.S. team, no records were kept,” the outlet asserted, adding that many athletes from the purported team did not even compete and instead hung around the open-air market where the virus is believed to have first emerged in humans.

The tactics are “a significant departure from how the Chinese have operated in the past,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Russia has long spread multiple, seemingly contradictory disinformation narratives and then said, ‘How can we know for sure what happened, how can we know the truth?’” she added. “We have never really seen China do that externally before. But now we see Chinese officials and media trying out those typically Russian tactics.”

On Monday, the Alliance for Securing Democracy will unveil a tool to track the Chinese disinformation and give a sense of the narrative Beijing is pushing. The group’s Hamilton dashboard has long monitored Russian Twitter accounts and broadcast feeds.

In recent days, Chinese officials have refined their messaging to move away from outright lies or falsehoods, Ms. Gabrielle said.

“I will say that the information space is ever-evolving,” she said. “It’s been very fluid, and China’s approach to it has been as well.”

In Africa, for example, Beijing’s diplomatic accounts tried for a couple of days to amplify the conspiracy theories pushed by Mr. Zhao. But since March 15, the propaganda in Africa mostly praises Chinese efforts. Ms. Gabrielle said her teams had seen similar shifting patterns in China’s messaging in Italy and elsewhere in the West.

China’s own initial failures in fighting the virus prevented its government from mounting a propaganda campaign of simply promoting its own achievements, forcing it to embrace Russian-style disinformation, said Matthew Kroenig, a former C.I.A. official and the author of a new book on the growing competition between China and the United States, “The Return of Great Power Rivalry.”

“Part of the reason the Chinese are copying the Russian playbook is because they mismanaged the crisis,” Mr. Kroenig said. “But they are also learning from the Russians.”

Russia’s public messaging about the coronavirus has been reserved, prompting some American officials and experts to conclude that Moscow, uncertain of how the pandemic will play out, had decided to hedge its public message by avoiding conspiracy theories that could blow back on the Russian government.

Still, Russia has shifted its propaganda efforts in Europe and elsewhere to focus on the virus, spreading conspiracy theories about it, according to the European Union’s disinformation unit, which has tracked it.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been a target of the Russian effort. The Lithuanian government believes Moscow was behind a falsified account that an American soldier serving in the NATO force in Lithuania had tested positive for coronavirus, a Lithuanian official said. Since then, Russia has spread other disinformation in Lithuania and in other countries in the Atlantic alliance.

The Russians’ tactics have a canny circularity, Ms. Gabrielle said. They push out a false message, which the Chinese and Iranians pick up and promote, and then Russian actors will repost the Chinese or Iranian versions of the message to make it seem like new information that had originated independently elsewhere.

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