China-based propagandists created an elaborate online disinformation campaign this year centered on an internet persona claiming to be a Swiss biologist to mislead the public about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Facebook researchers said Wednesday.
Going by the name Dr. Wilson Edwards, the persona wrote on Facebook that the U.S. was putting undue political pressure on the World Health Organization to blame China for the coronavirus. But Edwards isn’t a real person, which Switzerland's embassy in Beijing made clear in August.
Facebook researchers said they found evidence that the person was the creation of a Chinese cybersecurity company.
Although the character got little attention in the West, he was credulously cited in Chinese state-sponsored media as a whistleblower on world health policy.
Facebook said it had traced that account’s creation to Sichuan Silence Information Technology, a company in central China. According to its website, Silence was founded in 2000 and offers a wide range of information security services — and it counts China’s Ministry of Public Security among its customers. An inquiry sent to an email address on the company's website bounced back as undeliverable.
A spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said in an email that "China has shown a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude from the very beginning" in global efforts to research the origins of Covid-19, but did not address specifics about the Facebook account.
In a lengthy screed on Facebook in July, the fake scientist persona posted a conspiracy theory that the U.S. was trying to bully the WHO into blaming China for the pandemic.
Scientists have traced the first cases of Covid-19 to Wuhan, China, the home of both a renowned virology laboratory and wet markets that many experts agree were the original source of the virus.
While Facebook sometimes ties disinformation campaigns to particular government agencies, it didn’t claim that the Chinese government was directly responsible for the campaign. But it did note that almost immediately after the campaign was created, several people around the world who work for Chinese state infrastructure companies shared the post, as did a number of fake accounts. Almost no other authentic accounts did.
Chinese state-owned media agencies jumped on the story based on claims the persona had made, including People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, where the story is still live, and Global Times, where it has been removed but is still archived. Western media largely addressed the story by debunking it or focusing on Switzerland’s insistence that the scientist wasn’t real.
China has been active in trying to spread messaging that it’s not responsible for the pandemic, although it has denied WHO officials access to Wuhan to further investigate its origins. Several pro-China coordinated campaigns that seek to spread doubt about the origins of the coronavirus have appeared online, including one that falsely blames the lobster trade.