Chinese propaganda is now saying the U.S. Army brought the Corona virus to them. They have deployed both official statements and a full-on bot army to spread this malicious lie on social media. As crazy as it may sound, the story will gain traction and damage the United States while deflecting from the role China itself played in this global pandemic. This propaganda virus will spread online in a similar fashion to the actual virus in the real world.
The Chinese government hid the COVID-19 outbreak from the world and lied about it for as long as they could before having to admit the severity and danger. They also kept their borders open and allowed carriers of the infection to leave and spread it all over. This behavior was criminally negligent, but now they have seen the damage done to their reputation and are spinning at a high rate to try and deflect blame.
Russian attempts to influence U.S. opinion have gotten the bulk of the attention for the past few years, but the Chinese efforts are equally and perhaps even more widespread and effective. Russian election meddling and potential collusion was an easy vector for opponents of President Trump to attack him. But as the Mueller report showed, there was no actual collusion and the election efforts of a few hundred thousand dollars on Facebook were barely a drop in the bucket. Bloomberg spent half a billion dollars and managed to sway American Samoa to his side.
Changing minds and influencing major events is not easy, but that doesn’t mean our enemies are not hard at work trying to do so. The Chinese especially have many issues they try to spin in their favor using propaganda and social media manipulation including: trade and currency manipulation, genocide and prison camps for Uighurs, predatory natural resource acquisition. The Corona virus outbreak now threatens all their efforts globally to expand their influence.
So, they have attacked and they are not being particularly subtle. There is a wide market for conspiracy theories about the U.S. If the CIA had actually done all of things they are accused of it would be a truly impressive, albeit nefarious, set of accomplishments, the AIDS virus, the crack cocaine epidemic, the Kennedy assassination etc. The Chinese effort to pin this on the U.S. Army is a bit of a different angle, but still straight out of the Propaganda Ministry playbook.
You can agree or disagree with President Trump calling it the China Virus as he did in a recent tweet. But he is simply firing back at the Chinese by reminding everyone they propagated the pandemic by their malign actions hiding it from the world. Trump was hardly alone in noting the origin as many news reports used the terms China Corona virus or other variations until the pushback on those terms began.
It is worth looking at how that began and spread. There is certainly an element of political correctness that drove some of the negative reactions to calling it the Wuhan or China virus. Although naming outbreaks based on their origin is a long-established tradition. And while West Nile virus and Ebola are foreign, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever are from right here in the USA. A reaction based on potential racism alone doesn’t explain the online reactions.
Many users on Twitter found their timelines flooded with mechanized responses to their tweets about the origin of the virus. There was even a denial of service attack on the Health and Human Services website that is currently being investigated. My organization Security Studies Group specializes in information operations by nation states and we have begun an evaluation of Chinese actions to spread misinformation and propaganda regarding this pandemic. The early results show a massive campaign to deflect blame and also to show a successful response to the outbreak by the Chinese government.
As we are all affected by the spread of the virus, we should take time to consider our response once the immediate danger has passed. Pandemics will occur and this was not a Chinese disease, but the response to the outbreak and the current attempts to hide that culpability certainly were very standard operations for that totalitarian regime.
We should ensure that a full accounting of their malfeasance is brought to bear by the international community. And we should undertake a counter-propaganda campaign to respond to the smears being sent against us and to make certain the world can plan for subsequent situations based on facts not falsehoods.
—Jim Hanson is President of Security Studies Group and served in US Army Special Forces