China reportedly spread COVID-19 misinformation

US intelligence officials claim operatives borrowed tactics used by Russia-backed trolls.

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A report by The New York Times claims Chinese operatives helped spread false COVID-19 information via text and social media across the US. According to US intelligence officials, the Chinese operatives amplified disinformation about a national lockdown, and those messages then spread quickly on their own. Some of the tactics reportedly used -- like creating fake social media accounts to push messages to sympathetic Americans -- are reminiscent of techniques used by Russia-backed trolls, NYT reports.

According to the NYT, a couple versions of these disinformation messages circulated widely, beginning in mid-March. The messages claimed that President Trump was about to shut down the country. They generally attributed a friend in a federal agency like the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, FBI or CIA. The messages gathered enough attention that on March 15th, the National Security Council tweeted, “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE.”

Two of the six American officials who the NYT spoke with said they don’t believe the Chinese operatives created the lockdown messages but amplified existing ones. “The origin of the messages remains murky,” the NYT wrote.

Still, the officials believe China is borrowing Russia’s strategies to widen political divisions in the US and undermine confidence in the federal government. The officials are also reportedly concerned about disinformation aimed at Europeans that pro-China actors may have helped spread.

In response to these allegations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a statement, “The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting.”

Regardless of where the messages originated, disinformation campaigns are a growing problem and threat to society, and we have seen China-backed accounts spread misinformation in the past. False and misleading info related to the COVID-19 pandemic was an immediate concern, and several platforms, including Facebook and Google, have taken steps to limit its proliferation. But those efforts only go so far, and they don’t stop scammers from attempting to take advantage of the disaster.