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Report Examines Conspiracy Theories About Covid-19 Origins In China, the US, Russia, and Iran

March 22nd, 2021 14:03

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press and the DFR­Lab, a US think tank, have pub­lished a joint research project exam­in­ing and com­par­ing the false nar­ra­tives about Covid-19’s ori­gins in Chi­na, the US, Rus­sia, and Iran dur­ing the first six months of the virus’s out­break. Accord­ing to the report’s introduction:

Feb­ru­ary 2021 The  report  focus­es  on  how  vary­ing, unver­i­fied, and out­right false nar­ra­tives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab  acci­dent  spread  glob­al­ly  on  social  media  and  beyond,  and the  geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of those narratives.

Read the rest here.

Accord­ing to the report, Chi­na, the US, Rus­sia, and Iran all were involved in spread­ing false rumors about the ori­gins of the virus and, pri­or­i­tiz­ing domes­tic audi­ences, “played a glob­al blame-game with­out any evi­dence to back up their accu­sa­tions” instead of engag­ing in mul­ti­lat­er­al coop­er­a­tion and shar­ing fact-based advice to the public.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ty was  to shift the blame to geopo­lit­i­cal com­peti­tors and to por­tray itself as glob­al benev­o­lent power:

Giv­en the ear­li­est  reports  of  the  virus  came  from Chi­na, that  coun­try was cen­tral  to nar­ra­tives that  it  was  a  bioweapon  either  devel­oped  by  or,  con­verse­ly,  tar­get­ing the coun­try. The Chi­nese approach to infor­ma­tion con­trol around the virus fol­lowed close­ly its phi­los­o­phy of dis­course pow­er. The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CCP) silenced domes­tic voic­es  report­ing  on  the  dis­ease through harsh  infor­ma­tion  con­trol,  includ­ing impris­on­ment of jour­nal­ists,  doc­tors, and pub­lic  health  offi­cials. Beyond  its  bor­ders, Chi­na ini­tial­ly pre­ferred to boost inter­na­tion­al per­cep­tion in its favor by ampli­fy­ing sto­ries about its benev­o­lence in assist­ing oth­er coun­tries to com­bat the virus. As the dis­ease per­sist­ed,  how­ev­er, Chi­na began to  push  nar­ra­tives that  paint­ed  its  geopo­lit­i­cal com­peti­tors  in  a  neg­a­tive  light, includ­ing push­ing  con­spir­a­cies  such  as the  idea  that COVID-19 was a US bio­log­i­cal weapon.

The US admin­is­tra­tion, on the oth­er hand, adopt­ed xeno­pho­bic mes­sag­ing against Chi­na intend­ing to dis­tract the US pub­lic away from the government’s dis­joint­ed approach to mit­i­gate the virus:

In the Unit­ed States, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, includ­ing then-Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, made the con­verse claim imply­ing the virus orig­i­nat­ed in a lab­o­ra­to­ry in Wuhan, even pos­tu­lat­ing that its release could have been inten­tion­al. The lan­guage deployed in sup­port of this nar­ra­tive by some polit­i­cal influ­encers often fol­lowed a pat­tern of inten­tion­al insin­u­a­tion, which posit­ed at best unver­i­fied infor­ma­tion, which was then twist­ed into dis­in­for­ma­tion when fur­ther ampli­fied, offer­ing the orig­i­nal source an unhelp­ful amount of plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty. These nar­ra­tives also had a xeno­pho­bic tinge, spread­ing read­i­ly among con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry and fringe web­sites. It remained in fre­quent use as a means of crit­i­ciz­ing Chi­na, with Pres­i­dent Trump deploy­ing ver­sions of it until his final day in office. Con­verse­ly, the xeno­pho­bia was oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly ampli­fied by US rivals to col­or the entire coun­try as racist or unwel­com­ing. The cumu­la­tive effect of this was to dis­tract the US public’s atten­tion away from the fed­er­al government’s dis­joint­ed approach to mit­i­gat­ing the virus and point the blame at China.

Final­ly, the report notes that both Rus­sia and Iran used con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the virus’s ori­gins to fur­ther their geopo­lit­i­cal agen­das and to push anti-US narratives:

Mean­while, Rus­sia and Iran used demon­stra­bly false nar­ra­tives about the dis­ease as a means of fur­ther­ing their geopo­lit­i­cal agen­das, push­ing anti-US nar­ra­tives regard­less of verac­i­ty. In Rus­sia, where some of the very first nar­ra­tives emerged, the efforts appeared to be less orga­nized than pri­or efforts of malign influ­ence direct­ed at the Unit­ed States but still attempt­ed to sow chaos and dis­trust of the US gov­ern­ment. In Iran, mes­sag­ing gen­er­al­ly tar­get­ed its domes­tic audi­ences as the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try was already fraught. Mass protests against gas prices, the US assas­si­na­tion of Gen­er­al Qasem Soleimani, and the acci­den­tal shoot-down of a com­mer­cial jet left the entire Iran­ian pop­u­la­tion on edge, only to be exac­er­bat­ed by an ear­ly out­break of the virus.  The  regime’s mes­sag­ing  of exter­nal  threats  to  the  coun­try –espe­cial­ly  the Unit­ed States –was fre­quent­ly used as a means of renew­ing the Iran­ian public’s fideli­ty to the regime.

Glob­al Influ­ence Oper­a­tions Report (GIOR) report­ing on var­i­ous state actor COVID dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns has included:

  • A report from Octo­ber 2020 on a US Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty analy­sis con­clud­ing that Chi­nese oper­a­tives were prob­a­bly wag­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns using overt and covert tactics—including social media trolls— to shift respon­si­bil­i­ty for the pan­dem­ic to oth­er coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States.
  • A report from Novem­ber 2020 that the UK’s Sig­nal Intel­li­gence Agency was prepar­ing to launch a “major offen­sive cyber oper­a­tion against state-spon­sored pro­pa­gan­da aimed at under­min­ing research on the COVID-19 vaccine.”
  • A report from Jan­u­ary on a New York Times and ProP­ub­li­ca inves­ti­ga­tion into state-spon­sored Chi­nese dis­in­for­ma­tion efforts cen­tered on the Covid pandemic.
  • A report from Jan­u­ary on a CNN analyst’s view of Russ­ian efforts to spread COVID-relat­ed disinformation.
  • A report from Jan­u­ary on an EU analy­sis con­clud­ing that pro-Krem­lin media are try­ing to gen­er­ate sup­port for the Russ­ian Sput­nik V COVID vac­cine by shift­ing its dis­in­for­ma­tion narratives.
  • A report from this month on an Aus­tralian think-tank’s analy­sis of Chi­nese and Russ­ian influ­ence cam­paigns aimed at under­min­ing the Covid-19 vac­ci­na­tion programs.

Read the full report here.