Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.
China, taking notes from Russia’s playbook, is spreading misinformation about the coronavirus in the United States by sending text messages, as well as boosting social media posts, aimed at sowing public fear and promoting lockdown protests, according to a report published Wednesday.
During the early stages of the outbreak in the United States, Chinese agents reportedly sent text messages to Americans warning the government would soon impose a nationwide lockdown with little notice to prepare, The New York Times reported, citing six U.S. intelligence officials from six separate agencies.
“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” one message said, according to the Times. The message falsely claimed an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official saying he "got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”
Within 48 hours, the White House National Security Council was forced to qualm fears.
“Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown,” the agency tweeted on March 15. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19.”
Now, as many Americans are out of work amid stay-at-home orders, Chinese agents have played on these times of economic hardship using social media to further sow public dissent against the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis.
For the U.S. intelligence officials, the use of text messages to spread misinformation was new — SMS and WhatsApp interactions are more difficult to track by law enforcement than activity on social media.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, told the Times that private citizens have also identified some online bots that helped organize recent lockdown protests via social media.
Mimicking approaches used by Russian trolls, Chinese agents do not create all the messages, but, instead, help amplify the existing ones. They take a Facebook post written by an American and help it gain more traction on the platform, further fanning political divides.
Research conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy found “Beijing is increasing its presence on western social media platforms and taking a more confrontational approach to information manipulation that draws on Russia’s tactics.”
Those tactics include amplifying conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation to sow doubt about established facts, according to the Washington, D.C.-based national security advocacy group.
For example, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak from China was now a global pandemic on March 11. The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted an article from known pro-Kremlin outfit Global Research Canada which falsely claimed the novel virus originated in the U.S.
That tweet, which received more than 10,000 retweets and 20,000 likes, was also retweeted by at least a dozen diplomatic accounts. “Meanwhile, China’s state-backed media outlets ran multiple articles amplifying the false theory,” the research report published on March 30 said.
The U.S. has increasingly called out China for its alleged cover-up scheme, accusing Beijing of trying to conceal the extent of the outbreak in its early stages, something American officials claim affected its own response to the virus.
Last week, China increased the death toll in the city of Wuhan, where the virus first originated, by 50 percent. In another attempt to deflect the blame, Zhao said in a press conference Friday that China urged “the U.S. to stop political manipulation, get its own house in order and focus more on fighting the epidemic and boosting the economy.”
The Center for New American Security, another think tank based in D.C., has been conducting similar research on coercive economic measures used in the relationship between the China and the United States. Their findings are scheduled to be released on Friday.