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.
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.”
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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.
“This is like a virus, like COVID, a media pathogen,” said Kang Liu, a professor at Duke University who studies cultural politics and media in China, comparing the spread of disinformation about the virus to the spread of the virus itself. “We have a double pandemic -- the real pathological virus and the pandemic of fear. The fear is what is really at stake.”
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.
The New Zealand Herald said it has an “ad hoc commercial relationship with People’s Daily,” labels their content as sponsored and reviews it before publication. “Upon further review of the story that you have referred to, we have removed this particular item from our website,” a spokesman said in an email.
The Helsinki Times said it has a “barter-exchange” content agreement with People’s Daily, whose content it labels but does not vet. “We believe that the western media coverage is at times extremely one-sided and biased,” said Alexis Kouros, the editor of the Helsinki Times. “Even though People’s Daily is state-owned, like the BBC, we believe it is beneficial for the global audience to have both sides of stories.”
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.
“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. Long-term, he added, China is “the more formidable competitor and adversary because of the technological capabilities they bring to the table.”
‘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.
The theory spread via outlets like One America News Network, a pro-Trump channel, Iran’s Press TV, Global Research and its erstwhile partner, the Strategic Culture Foundation, an online journal that masquerades as independent but is actually directed by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the U.S. State Department.
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.