In mid-September, Marcel Schliebs, a disinformation researcher at the University of Oxford who had been tracking messaging that Chinese diplomats and state media spread on Twitter for 18 months, spotted the emergence of a surprising coronavirus origin theory.
Zha Liyou, the Chinese consul general in Kolkata, India, tweeted an unfounded claim that Covid-19 could have been imported to China from the United States through a batch of Maine lobsters shipped to a seafood market in Wuhan in November 2019. It marks the latest in a series of theories that have been pushed by pro-China accounts since the start of the pandemic.
With some further digging, Schliebs uncovered a network of more than 550 Twitter accounts, which he shared with NBC News, spreading a nearly identical message, translated into multiple languages — including English, Spanish, French, Polish, Korean and even Latin — at similar times each day between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. China Standard Time.
Some of the accounts were “unsophisticated sock puppets” with “very few or zero followers,” Schliebs said, while others appeared to be accounts that were once authentic but had been hijacked and repurposed to spread disinformation.
“Attribution is really difficult,” said Schliebs, a postdoctoral researcher of computational propaganda at Oxford’s Programme on Democracy and Technology. “But we can see there’s a coordinated effort, and that it’s a pro-Chinese narrative.”
Articles in Chinese media, shared on social networks, have repeatedly suggested that Covid-19 may have originated from frozen-food imports. The same diplomat Schliebs noticed pushing the Maine lobster theory last month had already tweeted in December about the theory that Covid could have arrived in Wuhan from elsewhere via the "cold chain" and called for further investigation into the baseless claim that the U.S. military was involved in spreading the virus.
“This is the third or fourth major different redirection Chinese officials have gone in to try and somehow pin the Covid outbreak on the U.S.,” Bret Schafer, the head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the nonprofit German Marshall Fund of the United States, said about the diplomats spreading the messaging bolstered by inauthentic accounts. “It looks crude and not sophisticated when you look at individual accounts. But these kinds of networks are designed to try and get topics to trend on social media.”
“Whether or not anyone is buying into lobster or Fort Detrick being the source of Covid, it’s at least having the effect of muddying the truth and confusing people,” he added. (Fort Detrick, in Maryland, is the home of the U.S. biological defense program.)
Schliebs said he shared with Twitter a spreadsheet of the accounts that appeared to be behaving inauthentically. The social media platform said it reviewed the accounts and suspended them under its platform manipulation and spam policy.
“Our top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant about coordinated activity on our service,” Twitter spokesperson Marco Bilello said. “Using both technology and human review, we proactively and routinely tackle attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them at scale by actioning millions of accounts each week for violating our policies in this area.”
Twitter investigates inauthentic networks of accounts to see if it can reliably attribute them to state-linked activity, the company said, but that process can take several months. It has not yet linked this network to anyone working for the Chinese government.
Because of how quickly Schliebs’ team identified the network, the “real-world impact was likely small,” he said. “We alerted Twitter about the network, and they quickly suspended it just as it was starting to gain traction, when the network was in its growth phase.”
Maine’s lobster industry has been caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China trade relations for several years. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, American live lobster exports to China, a major buyer of seafood, plummeted by more than 40 percent in 2019 after China imposed heavy tariffs on U.S. lobsters during President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. U.S. lobster exports to China rebounded in 2020, as China eased restrictions on the industry. But some experts are concerned about the possibility of future seafood sanctions from China.
In November, China restricted the import of Australian lobsters amid a monthslong diplomatic and trade dispute. It also informally restricted the import of Norwegian salmon after a Nobel Prize was awarded to a Chinese activist.
Some articles pointing the finger at Maine lobsters link to a World Health Organization report published in March that said SARS-CoV-2 can survive in frozen and refrigerated products and packaging for a long time, which provides a “scientific basis for the possibility” that such imports could transmit the virus.
“Public health organizations from around the world have stated with certainty that imported food is not the cause of Covid-19,” said Tom Adams, owner of Maine Coast, a Maine lobster wholesale supplier whose headquarters were mentioned in some of the Chinese media articles. “Maine Coast has no information supporting this claim.”
Adams added that the unfounded rumors had not affected his business.
Some articles falsely suggest that cases of lung disease identified by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as caused by e-cigarettes may have been the first cluster of Covid-19 cases.
The Maine CDC said the claims have no scientific basis.
“It appears that these claims make an unfounded connection between individuals who required treatment for vaping-related lung injuries in a Maine hospital and the fact that lobsters live in the waters near that hospital,” said Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine CDC. “It’s a right load of codswallop.”
Kai Yan, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.K., said China was “opposed to the fabrication and spread of disinformation.”
“China is the biggest victim of disinformation, and the perpetrators are some politicians and media outlets eager for China-bashing in the U.S. and a few other Western countries,” Yan said.
Yan added that China urges “all members of the international community to work together in opposing and resisting such disinformation, which will inevitably disrupt global cooperation in fighting the pandemic.”
Despite the swift identification and suspension of the accounts, the same theory is still spreading on Twitter, Schliebs said.
“We slowed it down significantly, but we still see some coordinated effort to spread the message,” Schliebs said. “It seems like accounts are being set up now to replace the ones taken down in response to our investigation.”