Anatomy of a conspiracy: With COVID, China took leading role

  • (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

BRUSSELS — The rumors began almost as soon as the disease itself. Claims that a foreign adversary had unleashed a bioweapon emerged at the fringes of Chinese social media the same day China first reported the outbreak of a mysterious virus.

“Watch out for Americans!” a Weibo user wrote on Dec. 31, 2019. Today, a year after the World Health Organization warned of an epidemic of COVID-19 misinformation, that conspiracy theory lives on, pushed by Chinese officials eager to cast doubt on the origins of a pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives globally.

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From Beijing and Washington to Moscow and Tehran, political leaders and allied media effectively functioned as superspreaders, using their stature to amplify politically expedient conspiracies already in circulation. But it was China — not Russia – that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak.

A nine-month Associated Press investigation of state-sponsored disinformation conducted in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, shows how a rumor that the U.S. created the virus that causes COVID-19 was weaponized by the Chinese government, spreading from the dark corners of the Internet to millions across the globe. The analysis was based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms.

Chinese officials were reacting to a powerful narrative, nursed by QAnon groups, Fox News, former President Donald Trump and leading Republicans, that the virus was instead manufactured by China.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Beijing has used its expanding megaphone on Western social media to promote friendship and serve facts, while defending itself against hostile forces that seek to politicize the pandemic.

“All parties should firmly say ‘no’ to the dissemination of disinformation,” the ministry said in a statement to AP, but added, “In the face of trumped-up charges, it is justified and proper to bust lies and clarify rumors by setting out the facts.”

The battle to control the narrative about where the virus came from has had global consequences in the fight against COVID-19.

By March, just three months after COVID-19 appeared in central China, belief that the virus had been created in a lab and possibly weaponized was widespread, multiple surveys showed. The Pew Research Center found, for example, that one in three Americans believed the new coronavirus had been created in a lab; one in four thought it had been engineered intentionally. In Iran, top leaders cited the bioweapon conspiracy to justify their refusal of foreign medical aid. Anti-lockdown and anti-mask groups around the world called COVID-19 a hoax and a weapon, complicating public health efforts to slow the spread.

Spreading rumors

On Jan. 26, a man from Inner Mongolia posted a video claiming that the new virus ravaging central China was a biological weapon engineered by the U.S. It was viewed 14,000 times on the Chinese app Kuaishou before being taken down. The man was arrested, detained for 10 days and fined for spreading rumors.

People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, broadcast news of his detention in early February, showing the man, face pixelated, wrists shackled, and legs caged in a chair. It was a stern reminder to the citizens of China that fake news can lead to arrest and part of a broader effort by Chinese state media to debunk COVID-19 conspiracies.

But just six weeks later the same conspiracy would be broadcast by China’s foreign ministry, picked up by at least 30 Chinese diplomats and missions and amplified through China’s vast, global network of state media outlets.

During those six weeks, China’s leadership came under intense internal criticism. On Feb. 7, Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor punished for circulating an early warning about the outbreak, died of COVID-19. The outpouring of grief and rage sparked by Li’s death was an unusual – and for the ruling Communist Party, unsettling — display in China’s tightly monitored civic space.

Meanwhile, powerful voices in the U.S. — from former President Trump to congressional Republicans — were working to rebrand COVID-19 as “the China virus,” amplifying fringe theories that it had been engineered by Chinese scientists.

Social media accounts that appeared to be pro-Trump or QAnon followers pushed the disinformation, repeatedly retweeting identical content that claimed China created the virus as a bioweapon, researchers at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology found.

As U.S. rhetoric intensified, China went on the offensive. On Feb. 22, People’s Daily ran a report highlighting speculation that the U.S. military brought the virus to China, pushing the story globally through inserts in newspapers such as the Helsinki Times in Finland and the New Zealand Herald.

As China embraced overt disinformation, it leaned on Russian disinformation strategy and infrastructure, turning to a long-established network of Kremlin proxies in the West to seed and spread messaging.

‘The truth as I see it’

In January, long before China began overtly spreading disinformation, Russian state media swept in to legitimize the theory that the U.S. engineered the virus as a weapon.

On Jan. 20, the Russian Army’s media outlet, Zvezda, announced that the outbreak in China was linked to a bioweapons test, citing a four-time failed political candidate named Igor Nikulin.

Nikulin claims to have worked with the United Nations on disarmament in Iraq from 1998 to 2003, including as an adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

But the U.N. has no record of his service. Richard Butler, the lead U.N. weapons inspector at the time, told AP he’s never heard of him. Neither has Hans Corell, who served as Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel of the United Nations from 1994-2004, where he worked closely with Annan.

Nikulin said records of his U.N. work may have been destroyed and stuck by his theory that COVID is a U.S. bioweapon – a claim that has been repeatedly debunked. “What other proof is needed?!” he said in an email to AP.

Over the next two months, more than 70 articles appeared in pro-Kremlin media making similar bioweapons claims in Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, English and German, according to AP’s analysis of a database compiled by EUvsDisinfo, which tracks disinformation for the European Union.

Online journals identified by the U.S. State Department and others as pro-Russian proxies picked up the bioweapons narrative, enhancing its reach and resonance.

Russian politicians joined the chorus. Parliamentarian Natalia Poklonskaya argued that the novel coronavirus could be a biological weapon created “by those who want to rule the planet” to undermine China. Shortly after, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalistic leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, suggested that the U.S. and its greedy pharmaceutical companies were to blame.

Meanwhile, Nikulin kept flogging his theory, which morphed as the pandemic spread from an attack on China to an attack on Trump. Despite his inconsistency and questionable bona fides, by April, Nikulin had appeared at least 18 times on Russian television. U.S. officials also said Russian intelligence had been covertly spreading COVID-19 disinformation, including claims that the virus was a U.S. bioweapon.

On Jan. 23, Beijing began to roll out the largest medical quarantine in modern history, sealing tens of millions of people at the epicenter of the outbreak in central China. The images were harrowing, as people desperate to slip out thronged train stations.

Shortly after 11 a.m. the next morning, Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, emailed a “worldwide alert” to 300 contacts warning, without evidence, that China had been developing the coronavirus as a bioweapon at a biosafety lab in Wuhan.

Over the next few weeks, Boyle refined his theory, now asserting that Chinese scientists had not developed the virus themselves, but taken it from a North Carolina laboratory.

“This is clearly an offensive biological warfare agent,” Boyle told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on a Feb. 19 Infowars broadcast.

Boyle told the AP his conclusions are based on research and that he can’t stop conspiracy theorists or foreign governments from using his claims for their own ends.

“My job is to tell the truth as I see it,” he said.

‘Information laundering’

On March 9, a public WeChat account called Happy Reading List reposted an essay claiming the U.S. military created SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, at a lab at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, and loosed it in China during the Military World Games, an international competition for military athletes, held in Wuhan in October 2019.

The account, which has been suspended, was registered in May 2019 by a woman from Henan province in central China, who did not reply to messages. It’s not clear who first wrote the article, which can still be found on other WeChat accounts.

The next day an anonymous petition appeared on the White House’s now-defunct “We the People” portal. It urged U.S. authorities to clarify whether the virus had been developed at Fort Detrick and leaked from the lab. The petition was lavishly covered by China’s state media, despite getting only 1,426 signatures, far shy of the 100,000 needed to merit a response from the White House.

On March 11, Larry Romanoff, who claims to be a former management consultant based in Shanghai, posted an article on Global Research Canada that cribbed heavily from the Happy Reading List posting, citing it as a source.

“There have been a number of stories where the origin of a story is in Russian-controlled space but it’s picked up by Global Research and then put forward as their own story. Then you get Russian media saying western analysts in Canada say that. We call that information laundering,” said Sarts, the NATO StratCom director. “They have been helpful for a long time to Russian information operations and recently to the Chinese as well.”

Neither Romanoff nor Global Research responded to requests for comment.

The day of Romanoff’s article, the World Health Organization officially designated the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, spent part of the next afternoon retweeting cute dog videos. Then, late that night, he sent out a series of tweets over 13 minutes that launched what may be China’s first truly global digital experiment with overt disinformation.

“When did patient zero begin in US?” Zhao wrote. “How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe (sic) us an explanation!”

The next morning, Zhao urged his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to read and retweet Romanoff’s piece. An hour and a half-hour later he gave Global Research another boost, referring his followers to an earlier Romanoff article that cited Chinese state media reporting to cast doubt on the origins of the virus.

Twitter later added a fact-check warning to Zhao’s tweet about the US Army – but only in English. An identical post in Mandarin carried no such alert. Twitter also put a fact-checking label on only one of Zhao’s two reposts of Global Research content.

A Twitter spokesperson said that the platform has expanded its policies to deal with misleading COVID-19 information but did not address specific posts flagged by AP.

Zhao’s tweets were now global news, and they hijacked mainstream discussion of the coronavirus. On Twitter alone, Zhao’s aggressive spray of 11 tweets on March 12 and 13 was cited over 99,000 times over the next six weeks, in at least 54 languages, according to analysis conducted by DFRLab. The accounts that referenced him had nearly 275 million followers on Twitter – a number that almost certainly includes duplicate followers and does not distinguish fake accounts.

Influential conservatives on Twitter, including Donald Trump Jr., hammered Zhao, propelling his tweets to their largest audiences.

The same day Zhao tweeted that the virus might have come from the U.S. Army, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also announced that COVID-19 could be the result of a biological attack.

State media outlets reinforced Khamenei’s message, drawing on foreign sources for validation. Tasnim News, for example, quoted Nikulin, the self-proclaimed Russian bioweapons expert, to suggest the U.S. engineered the virus to target China. Javan Online quoted Zhao’s tweets to claim Chinese officials had evidence the U.S. was behind the pandemic.

Military and religious leaders in Iran repeatedly referred to the virus as a U.S.-made bioweapon. Their remarks were, in turn, amplified by Russian media and picked up in China, where they fueled further speculation.

In search of an ending

In April, Russia and Iran largely dropped the bioweapon conspiracy in their overt messaging. They had a more pressing concern: Surging numbers of dead. China carried on.

Beijing was besieged by demands for accountability. In the U.S., there were calls for a “pandemic tariff” and canceling U.S. debt with China. Republicans in Congress began introducing legislation to strip China of its sovereign immunity so Americans could sue.

Chinese officials and state media continued to promote made-in-America COVID-19 conspiracies.

State broadcaster CGTN jumped in on May 16, releasing a slick documentary about Fort Detrick set to spooky music that has been viewed on its YouTube channel more than 82,000 times. YouTube has not flagged the video as state-sponsored content, despite a 2018 policy to label government-funded videos.

On Jan. 14, 2021, a team from the World Health Organization landed in China to investigate the origins of the outbreak. The next day, in one of the final acts of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department put out a “Fact Sheet” stating that the pandemic could be the result of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which it claimed has collaborated on secret projects with China’s military.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned those allegations as “the ‘last-day madness’ of ‘Mr. Liar.’”

“I’d like to stress that if the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a Jan. 18 press conference.

Her remarks went viral in China.

COVID-19 disinformation has been good for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within China, Zhao and his colleagues have a growing fan base and their followers on Twitter have soared. Zhao now has over 879,000 Twitter followers.

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Questions have been raised about how much of this audience is real and how much is from fake accounts — speculation China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said is groundless.

“Spreading disinformation about the epidemic is indeed spreading a ‘political virus,’” the ministry told AP. “False information is the common enemy of mankind, and China has always opposed the creation and spread of false information.”

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