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Chinese Communist Party tactics have shifted to imitate classic Russian disinformation campaigns, as well as amplify bogus stories from Moscow to pin the blame for coronavirus on the U.S., according to a State Department official and analysts.
U.S. officials said they’re now seeing Russian disinformation migrate from social media to state media and even official press conferences.
“Beijing is pursuing a comprehensive and coordinated influence campaign to advance its interest and undermine the United States,” said U.S. Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle, Global Engagement Center. “The CCP is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, military, and information tools to advance its influence”
American officials cite Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang this week openly questioning safety at U.S.-funded biological laboratories in the former Soviet Union and requested the U.S. “heed the concerns from the international community.”
The narrative quickly spread throughout state-run media and is included in articles like CGTN’s “10 conflicting things in U.S. government's handling of the pandemic” warning the U.S.-funded labs raise “serious questions as to what research is being conducted by these labs and why the U.S. keeps tight-lipped about it.”
U.S. officials also pointed to a Chinese government spokesperson demanding earlier this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarify when COVID-19 originated in the U.S., suggesting the American government is hiding that information.
“China has traditionally operated in the information space as an actor that tries to prop itself up,” said Kristine Lee, an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “The negative messaging is a new dimension to its information operations that we're seeing unfold today, and that may become more prominent in its influence campaigns in the future as well.”
Like officials in Moscow, China’s government is increasingly leveraging automated bots and trolls on social media. They’re also employing Chinese-designed social media apps, state-owned media, government spokespeople and even American platforms like Twitter to create a “mutually reinforcing feedback loop,” according to Lee.
While the approach of government officials in Beijing and Moscow merge, U.S. officials said their aims are different.
"While the Kremlin seeks to chaotically disrupt the current world order to accomplish its goals, the CCP seeks to deliberately shape it to Beijing's advantage,” said Gabrielle.
To counter these narratives, State Department officials said they’ve launched public messaging campaigns across the world, engaged diplomats and funded projects with local organizations in Africa, South America, and Europe.
Officials said the disinformation campaign continues from Beijing to promote the Chinese government as the global leader in the COVID-19 response and the West as failing to protect its citizens and help other countries.
“Whether there is actual public buy-in, I would be skeptical that countries and their populations don't see this sort of the patently manufactured nature of these narratives,” said Lee of the Chinese government campaign. “Once the dust settles and we are in a world in which we're grappling with the after-effects of the pandemic, there may be a backlash against China's actions, particularly in the information space.”