China has launched a Twitter offensive in the COVID-19 information war, more than doubling its number of official government tweets since January and in recent days using the platform to spread a conspiracy theory that the virus came from a U.S. government lab.
"The #US keeps calling for transparency & investigation. Why not open up Fort Detrick & other bio-labs for international review? Why not invite #WHO & int'l experts to the US to look into #COVI19 source & response?" the spokesperson for China's Foreign Affairs Ministry wrote in a May 8 tweet that has been liked more than 4,000 times.
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, is where the military houses and researches infectious diseases.
The Chinese have pushed out 90,000 tweets since the start of April from 200 diplomatic and state-run media accounts as part of an offensive in the COVID-19 information war, according to data collected by the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a tool that aggregates accounts connected to the Chinese government.
Bret Schafer, the digital disinformation fellow at the alliance, based in Washington, D.C., has been tracking China's increasing social media output for months.
According to Schafer's analysis, Twitter output from China's official sites has almost doubled since January, and the number of diplomatic Twitter accounts has tripled, to 135, up from just 40 accounts this time last year. Many tweets are in English or Mandarin, but the diplomatic accounts are often in the language of an embassy's host country.
The Chinese accounts "have become more aggressive, more conspiratorial, and the ones who have done that are their most popular accounts and have by far the most engagement," Schafer said.
The Twitter account for the Chinese Embassy in France "has significantly more followers than the embassy in Poland, for example, because the embassy in France has been a driver of the most aggressive content," he said.
The Fort Detrick conspiracy theory has been tweeted about more than 30 times from official Chinese diplomatic and state-run media accounts in the past two months, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
One of the first Chinese officials to tweet about the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory was Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's Information Department, who has a history as one of China's most prolific officials on Twitter. On March 12, he tweeted, "It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."
The next day, he tweeted, "Further evidence that the virus originated in the US," linking to a post on Global Research, a Canadian blog with pro-Kremlin leanings. The blog post argued that the virus could have originated in the U.S. and possibly leaked from Fort Detrick.
The blog post has since been taken down, but a cached version can be found online. The author of the post did not respond to a request for comment.
Chinese embassy accounts in France and Jordan retweeted Zhao, and in the past two weeks activity on Twitter around the conspiracy theory has accelerated.
On May 8, Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, tweeted the demand to investigate Fort Detrick. The tweet was picked up by at least nine other Chinese diplomatic accounts in the two days afterward, according to Schafer, including Zhao's and the Foreign Affair Ministry's official Twitter account. China's ambassador to Venezuela also tweeted out a Spanish translation.
Zhao's March 13 tweet has been retweeted 12,600 times and liked 20,000 times.
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U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have suggested that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, and could have been man-made, although the scientific consensus is that it was not man-made. The U.S. intelligence community has said it is still examining whether the virus began through contact with infected animals or whether it was the result of an accident at a lab in Wuhan, although animal-to-human transmission is still seen as more likely.
On Tuesday a state-run media account for the China Global Television Network (CGTN) released an animated video on Twitter mocking Pompeo’s remarks about the origins of the virus. The minute and a half long video, made to look like a video game, is called "Pompeo’s Credibility Test." It had only been retweeted and viewed on Facebook several hundred times at the time of publication.
China's use of Twitter to push the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory is a "counterpunch" to White House rhetoric, according to China watchers.
"Obnoxious and childish as this is, it should be noted that such Chinese statements have generally mirrored earlier American statements. Rhetorically, China is counterpunching — not throwing the first blow," said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
"The primary goal of this rhetoric is to demonstrate to Chinese domestic constituencies that the Communist Party is not lying prostrate before American accusations," he said.
When asked by NBC News in April about official government accounts spreading conspiracy theories, China's vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, said, "The source of the virus is a complex issue that has to be studied by medical expert and scientists, rather than political figures."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in March that it was "completely ridiculous and it's irresponsible" for a Chinese government official to suggest that the U.S. military was involved in spreading the virus.
An Army spokesperson called the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory "false" and said, "The work at Fort Detrick supports the whole-of-government effort to combat COVID-19 and other viruses."
The Fort Detrick conspiracy theory is just one example of the new, aggressive way China is fighting the COVID-19 propaganda war.
Official government accounts have flooded social media with messages and images touting the COVID-19-related aid China sends around the world.
Xinhua, the official state-run news agency, puts out a steady stream of COVID-19-related content on Twitter, and on April 30 it posted a two-minute video titled "Once Upon a Virus" mocking the U.S. response to COVID-19 and hailing China's. It has been retweeted almost 26,000 times and liked 50,000 times.
China previously focused on amplifying positive messaging around China and censoring damaging and critical information, but now the Chinese have learned from Russian disinformation campaigns, according to experts tracking both countries' online messaging.
"Like Russia did in the 2016 election and with Brexit, China is taking this opportunity to destabilize liberal democracies through disinformation campaigns aimed at exacerbating already existing societal fault lines," said Mollie Saltskog, an intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy based in New York.
"The apparent increase in China's disinformation capabilities, coupled with its affinity for using Russia's tactics, has worrying geopolitical implications, especially as it relates to a solidifying Sino-Russian alignment," Saltskog said.
Saltskog said it remains debatable how effective China's campaign is at persuading populations in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, noting that Chinese-led disinformation campaigns that spread an anti-U.S. narrative in African countries were not received well by the local population.
Zhao's March 12 tweet stating that the U.S. Army might have brought the virus to Wuhan mirrored Trump's aggressive Twitter style. "Be transparent!" Zhao demanded. "Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!"
Schafer said, "Diplomatic language fails on Twitter."