BRUSSELS (AP) — It took just three months for the rumor that COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon to spread from the fringes of the Chinese internet and take root in millions of people’s minds.
By March 2020, belief that the virus had been human-made and possibly weaponized was widespread, multiple surveys indicated. 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.
This chaos was, at least in part, manufactured.
Powerful forces, from Beijing and Washington to Moscow and Tehran, have battled to control the narrative about where the virus came from. Leading officials and allied media in all four countries functioned as super-spreaders of disinformation, using their stature to sow doubt and amplify politically expedient conspiracies already in circulation, a nine-month Associated Press investigation of state-sponsored disinformation conducted in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found. 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.
As the pandemic swept the world, it was China – not Russia – that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins.
Beijing was reacting to weeks of fiery rhetoric from leading U.S. Republicans, including then-President Donald Trump, who sought to rebrand COVID-19 as “the China virus.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Beijing has worked to promote friendship and serve facts, while defending itself against hostile forces seeking 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 day after the World Health Organization designated the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shot off a series of late-night tweets that launched what may be the party’s first truly global digital experiment with overt disinformation.
Chinese diplomats have only recently mobilized on Western social media platforms, more than tripling their Twitter accounts and more than doubling their Facebook accounts since late 2019. Both platforms are banned in China.
“When did patient zero begin in US?” Zhao tweeted on March 12. “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!”
What happened next showcases the power of China’s global messaging machine.
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.
China’s Global Times and at least 30 Chinese diplomatic accounts, from France to Panama, rushed in to support Zhao. Venezuela’s foreign minister and RT’s correspondent in Caracas, as well as Saudi accounts close to the kingdom’s royal family also significantly extended Zhao’s reach, helping launch his ideas into Spanish and Arabic.
His accusations got uncritical treatment in Russian and Iranian state media and shot back through QAnon discussion boards. But his biggest audience, by far, lay within China itself — despite the fact that Twitter is banned there. Popular hashtags about his tweetstorm were viewed 314 million times on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, which does not distinguish unique views.
Late on the night of March 13, Zhao posted a message of gratitude on his personal Weibo: “Thank you for your support to me, let us work hard for the motherland 💪!”
China leaned on Russian disinformation strategy and infrastructure, turning to an established network of Kremlin proxies to seed and spread messaging. In January, Russian state media were the first to legitimize the theory that the U.S. engineered the virus as a weapon. Russian politicians soon joined the chorus.
“One was amplifying the other… How much it was command controlled, how much it was opportunistic, it was hard to tell,” said Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia.
Iran also jumped in. The same day Zhao tweeted that the virus might have come from the U.S. Army, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced COVID-19 could be the result of a biological attack. He would later cite that conspiracy to justify refusing COVID-19 aid from the U.S.
Ten days after Zhao’s first conspiratorial tweets, China’s global state media apparatus kicked in.
“Did the U.S. government intentionally conceal the reality of COVID-19 with the flu?” asked a suggestive op-ed in Mandarin published by China Radio International on March 22. “Why was the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, the largest biochemical testing base, shut down in July 2019?”
Within days, versions of the piece appeared more than 350 times in Chinese state outlets, mostly in Mandarin, but also around the world in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic, AP found.
China’s Embassy in France promoted the story on Twitter and Facebook. It appeared on YouTube, Weibo, WeChat and a host of Chinese video platforms, including Haokan, Xigua, Baijiahao, Bilibili, iQIYI, Kuaishou and Youku. A seven-second version set to driving music appeared on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
“Clearly pushing these kinds of conspiracy theories, disinformation, does not usually result in any negative consequences for them,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund.
In April, Russia and Iran largely dropped the bioweapon conspiracy in their overt messaging.
China, however, has carried on.
In January, as a team from the World Health Organization poured through records in China to try to pinpoint the origins of the virus, MOFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged the U.S. to “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.”
Her remarks went viral in China.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told AP it resolutely opposes spreading conspiracy theories. “We have not done it before and will not do it in the future,” the ministry said in a statement. “False information is the common enemy of mankind, and China has always opposed the creation and spread of false information.”
Associated Press reporters David Klepper, Farnoush Amiri, Beatrice Dupuy, Dake Kang, Peter Hamlin, Jeannie Ohm, Allen Breed, and news researcher Si Chen contributed to this report.
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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org