China has been waging a sprawling COVID-19 disinformation campaign through news and social media aimed at advancing a conspiracy theory that the US created and released the contagion as a bioweapon, according to a new investigation.
A nine-month probe published Monday by the Associated Press details how the communist government has spread the malicious lie like a virus in its own right.
On Jan. 26, 2020 — less than a week after the first case of the coronavirus was diagnosed on US soil — a man from China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region posted a video to the Chinese app Kuaishou claiming that the then-new virus was engineered by the US, according to the study.
The video was deleted, and its creator arrested, detained for 10 days and fined for circulating the false narrative.
But within a matter of weeks, that same theory was being advanced by Chinese diplomats around the globe, as well as the vast web of state-run media outlets at home.
The misdirection came as China was under intense scrutiny for its early handling of the coronavirus — which had escaped the country’s quarantine and gone international — and facing a similar theory that the outbreak originated in a Chinese lab, which has since been deemed “extremely unlikely” by international health experts.
On Feb. 22, the People’s Daily — an internationally-circulated newspaper serving as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party — fired back, running a report based on speculation that the US military introduced the coronavirus to China, according to the AP report.
That report not only resonated at home, but also gained global traction, appearing in inserts in the New Zealand Herald and Finland’s Helsinki Times.
On March 9, an essay claiming that the US military created the virus in a lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland and released it at the Military World Games athletic competition — held in October 2019 in Wuhan, China, from which the virus sprang — circulated on WeChat, another Chinese social media platform.
The next day, an anonymous online petition was filed to the White House’s “We the People” site demanding that the US government respond to the Fort Detrick theory, according to the AP.
Though the petition garnered less than 2 percent of the 100,000 signatures needed to earn a response from the White House, the very fact that it was filed was extensively covered in Chinese media.
Biological science specialists in protective clothing at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland on March 9, 2020.AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Days later, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, unleashed a wave of tweets amplifying the outlandish theory posited in the essay.
“When did patient zero begin in US?” Zhao wrote to his hundreds of thousands of followers. “How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe [sic] us an explanation!”
Twitter later slapped the post with a fact-check warning, according to the AP — but only in English, leaving the Mandarin version of the tweet untouched.
All told, the 11 tweets that Zhao fired off over March 12 and 13 were cited more than 99,000 times in at least 54 languages over the ensuing six weeks, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which partnered with the AP for the investigation.
In turn, the accounts that referenced those tweets have nearly 275 million followers, according to the AP, which notes that that sum almost definitely includes some degree of overlap.
Ironically, tweets critical of Zhao’s conspiracy theory — such as broadsides from Donald Trump Jr. — spread the premise to the widest audience, the AP observed.
Dozens of accounts linked to Chinese diplomats, based in countries from France to Panama, also echoed the theory, exposing European and Latin American audiences to the conspiracy.
Accounts linked to Saudi Arabia’s royal family also gave the hoax weight, as did state-run media outlets in Russia and Iran, the investigation found.
The spread created a self-feeding cycle, where leaders in Russia and Iran weighing in on the China-created conspiracy made news back in China, further fueling speculation.
“Did the U.S. government intentionally conceal the reality of COVID-19 with the flu?” was the leading question asked in an op-ed published by China Radio International on March 22. “Why was the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, the largest biochemical testing base, shut down in July 2019?”
Within days, that piece was reprinted more than 350 times around the globe, primarily in Chinese, but also in English, Arabic, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, according to the AP.
Accounts promoting the op-ed across various social media platforms reached a cumulative 817 million followers, a total, again, almost certain to include some redundant accounts, an audit found.
The Fort Detrick conspiracy has never fully died since, being resurrected by Zhao in tweets over the summer, and last month by a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pushing back against further suggestions from the then-outgoing Trump administration that the virus could have escaped from a Wuhan lab.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman who has spread the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory.REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
“I’d like to stress that if the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying in a Jan. 18 press conference, which went viral in China.
In a statement to the AP, the ministry insisted that China was within its rights to defend itself from conspiracy theories flung its way, and was dedicated to setting the record straight.
“All parties should firmly say ‘no’ to the dissemination of disinformation,” the ministry said. “In the face of trumped-up charges, it is justified and proper to bust lies and clarify rumors by setting out the facts.”