September 19, 2020

Russian-linked accounts spread lies that the U.S. unleashed coronavirus on China

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin chatted and stood side by side for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit's official photo.
U.S. officials report that thousands of accounts linked to Russia are spreading a virus of propaganda about the coronavirus.

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board called out Russia and China for their dangerous approaches to coronavirus. While the virus spreads around the globe, Russia appears to be spreading the virus of propaganda, fueling alarm. On the other extreme, reports from China suggest citizens are facing intimidation if they share anything critical of the government’s response.

From the Post:

U.S. officials say thousands of Russian-linked accounts on social media have been posting “almost near identical” messages about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French — all echoing narratives on state-run media. These stories mostly target the West, alleging, for example, that the virus was forged in a U.S. lab to be unleashed on the Chinese people. Bill Gates and George Soros, in some tellings, were in on the plot.”

As outrageous as it sounds, the Russian-linked propaganda claims that coronavirus is “a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA” in an effort “to push anti-China messages.” Interestingly, humans are spreading fake news on thousands of accounts, not bots. Working in a coordinated fashion, they are sharing stories similar to outlets like RT and Sputnik, according to the report.

The global news agency, AFP, reported that U.S. officials say Russia’s approach is “disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic.” Fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are sharing propaganda in multiple languages. The goal appears to be damaging the reputation of the U.S. around the world.

“The disinformation campaign promotes unfounded conspiracy theories that the United States is behind the COVID-19 outbreak, in an apparent bid to damage the U.S. image around the world by seizing on health concerns,” reported AFP.

Philip Reeker, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, elaborated on the “malign actor’s” plot.

“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” said Reeker.

“By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response,” he said.

Unfortunately, the propaganda makes it harder to respond to the pandemic, as the public becomes suspicious of help from the West. Thus there are two dangerous pandemic viruses at work, the coronavirus and the virus of lies and propaganda.

The Post report also describes the alarming crackdown by officials in China as they monitor WeChat accounts even in the U.S. In one case, a man living in San Francisco shared an article critical of President Xi Jinping’s response to coronavirus in WeChat.

“One entrepreneur living in San Francisco tried to share information with his family that he thought the regime might be suppressing. Suddenly he began receiving messages from friends asking for his precise location and exhorting him to head back home — messages that were coerced, he believes, by authorities.”

Meanwhile, reports in the U.S. indicate that President Trump and his supporters are sharing their own fake news. BuzzFeed reported that “Trump’s biggest supporters think that the coronavirus is a deep state plot.” The idea came from Rush Limbaugh, who suggested the so-called “deep state” hoped to “bring down Trump” with the coronavirus.

Trump claimed that Speaker Pelosi “was trying to create a panic for political purposes, and downplayed the risk of the virus, thought to be fatal to as much as 2 percent of those who are infected. 

“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said. “The level that we’ve had in our country is very low, and those people are getting very better.”

Now, the virus of misinformation and spin may help the coronavirus spread. As American Christian pastor and author, John Pavlovitz notes, “You can’t gaslight a pandemic.”

Related: The illegal trade of endangered pangolins could have triggered the coronavirus ‘mild pandemic’

As always, it’s impossible to effectively address any issue without first accepting the truth and the underlying facts. So, the fight against coronavirus will require simultaneously fighting the virus of lies.


Featured image: “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin chatted and stood side by side for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit’s official photo.” Screenshot via YouTube

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