Truth is a battlefield. Facts are under assault. Now China has engaged an army of trolls – from high-ranking diplomats to AI ‘bots’ – to sell false claims that Covid-19 is a United States’ plot.
It’s the most obvious sign that an immense fight is being fought over the “hearts and minds” of a global audience.
It’s a propaganda battle between East and West. It’s nothing new.
Say it loud enough, often enough, widely enough, and people have a natural tendency to accept that something might be true. Such false plausibility has been the playground of prophets, political pundits, lobbyists and marketers for centuries.
What’s different now is the playing field has changed. Social media offers a spectacularly large audience all in one place – all susceptible to repetitive messaging, glitzy presentations and self-reaffirming tactics.
Just such a fight is flaring on Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, WhatsApp and YouTube.
It’s a Covid-19 lab-leak theory. Just not the one you expected.
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Storming Fort Detrick
Beijing this week rejected calls by the World Health Organisation for transparency, saying its research into the origins of the global pandemic was “inconsistent” with its position.
It’s outraged at the suggestion the pandemic escaped from a Wuhan-based laboratory.
It may have reasonable cause to be so. There is no evidence to suggest it did beyond assertions of the possibility.
But no substantive evidence has yet presented itself to support the most likely scenario either; that the virus leapt out of animals through China’s burgeoning “bushmeat” trade.
That’s keeping Beijing in the spotlight. It wants it to go away. So it has revived a fumbled attempt to shift the blame back on the United States.
Beijing is demanding international investigators be granted access to Fort Detrick in Maryland – even as it denies those same investigators access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
It’s a US Army biological warfare research facility positioned about 80km outside Washington.
It’s no stranger to conspiracy theories.
In the 1980s, Soviet agents planted a letter in an Indian newspaper accusing it of “manufacturing” the AIDS virus. The story soon swept the world.
“Since then, Fort Detrick has become a trope – a recurring antagonist dusted off every few years to play the villain in the latest virus-related disinformation drama,” says Alliance for Securing Democracy analyst Bret Schafer.
“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,” Beijing spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in January.
It sounds extreme. But it gets worse.
“As outlandish as some of the Fort Detrick claims by official Chinese sources have been, they represent the saner, sanitised tip of a much larger conspiracy-theory iceberg,” says Schafer.
Behind the “Great Firewall”, plausibility is less of a problem.
Social media influencers and party apparatchiks have been swarming over every possible conspiracy theory, no matter how outlandish.
“The cultural counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, for example, retweeted a newly created, anonymous account whose second-ever tweet happened to mirror Beijing’s talking points about the alleged connection between Fort Detrick and (Imperial Japan’s) Unit 731.”
In January, a man in Inner Mongolia posted a video inspired by conspiracy theories already circulating in Russia: The then-new Covid-19 outbreak was a bioweapon engineered by the US.
Chinese authorities arrested him. He was locked up for a week. He was fined for spreading “false rumours”.
But, by March, Beijing recognised the idea had potential.
It needed a distraction. It was under intense international pressure for the punishment of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who had raised the alarm about the outbreak late in December.
The Fort Detrick conspiracy theory hit WeChat on March 9.
On March 19, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made a now-infamous series of tweets rebroadcasting the allegation. China’s Communist Party-controlled “tabloid”, the Global Times, and some 30 Chinese accounts immediately jumped on the bandwagon.
Within days, the story had gone worldwide.
“We are concerned about the politicisation of origin tracing by certain countries,” Mr Zhao told a state-controlled media briefing at the weekend.
“The proposal for the second phase of origin tracing by the WHO Secretariat is inconsistent with the position of the Chinese side and also of many countries.”
He wanted research to focus on possible animal origins and transmission.
Mr Zhao also wanted the idea that covid may not have come from China explored.
“We need to continue to search for possible early cases globally and further understand the role of cold chains and frozen foods in the transmission of the virus,” he said.
But China’s state-controlled army of social media trolls have been giving another brief: Push the US Fort Detrick bioweapon conspiracy theory – hard.
Mr Zhao is no stranger to the bioweapon counter-attack conspiracy theory.
On May 27, he attempted to deflect questions about the Wuhan Institute by shifting the blame. “What secrets are hidden in the suspicion-shrouded Fort Detrick and the over 200 US biolabs all over the world?” he retorted.
Since then, Beijing’s troll army has mobilised.
Government officials. Party chiefs. Diplomats. Social media’ influencers’. Trolls.
“China’s vast propaganda apparatus and covert networks of online agitators and influencers have worked diligently to focus suspicion on Fort Detrick,” Mr Schafer says.
More than 115 tweets making this allegation have been pushed onto the world stage by agitators since that news conference. Many by high-profile figures.
That number is much higher behind China’s “Great Firewall”, where the captive population has no choice but to consume the Communist Party’s official point of view.
“Many of those tweets have attempted to smear the lab’s reputation, for example, by alleging the US lab is ‘inextricably linked’ with Japan’s notorious Unit 731, a germ warfare unit that targeted China during World War II.”
And that plays to one of Beijing’s fundamental insecurities: the “Century of Shame” following the collapse of Imperial China in the face of Western and Japanese colonialism.
Mr Schafer says Beijing has been carefully preparing the groundwork for this global propaganda blitz for more than a year.
“Since March 2020, Chinese government officials and state-affiliated media have mentioned Fort Detrick in more than 400 articles, videos, tweets, and press conferences,” he says.
The official campaign began with Mr Zhao’s tweets: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”, he alleged.
The story was that “the virus was brought from the Fort Detrick area to Wuhan by US Army reservist Maatje Benassi, who competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019,” Mr Schafer states.
The idea didn’t take off.
So variations of the accusation have been fed to audiences to find traction.
– A safety shutdown of Fort Detrick on July 19 was labelled the source of the leak. But that was more than a year too early.
– A “stringer” (really working for Russia’s state-controlled media) interviewed nursing home residents “silenced” about the leak. But their silence may also have been because there wasn’t one.
– A 2019 outbreak of a lung disease linked to vaping “near Fort Detrick” was Covid-19 in disguise. But it was in Wisconsin, 1300km away. And the symptoms didn’t match.
“None of these claims have been backed with hard evidence. But, like with the Fort Detrick narrative, that’s not the point,” says Mr Schafer. “The persistent and consistent nature of Beijing’s accusations have undoubtedly spun up suspicion of the lab – particularly in those parts of the world where mistrust of US foreign policy is already high.”
“China’s diplomats have also demonstrated an understanding that Twitter engagement is driven by provocation, not diplomacy,” writes Alliance for Securing Democracy director Jessica Brandt.
“Almost all of the most engaged with tweets from Chinese embassies and representatives … feature confrontational or conspiratorial content, and their most followed accounts are the most combative.”
Just a few years ago, it was taboo for Chinese Communist Party officials to be on Western social media. After all, their own people can be jailed for a single tweet.
Now, more than 200 of them are constantly provoking Western leaders, peddling conspiracy theories, and trolling subjects such as history, human rights, racism and political polarisation.
But – despite cartoons, video clips and cutting remarks – most attempts have been falling flat.
Beijing’s trolls have had to rely on ‘gaming’ social media algorithms.
Algorithms see profit in conflict. The artificial intelligences of Facebook, Twitter and Google know anger drives engagement. So, when it detects a new source of social inflammation, it broadcasts it to a broad audience.
Beijing knows this.
But computer-generated account names appear obvious. Profile photos are fake. Pictures don’t relate to assumed identities. And creation dates are usually recent – as they tend not to survive long.
“In cases where its diplomats seem unable to rally organic support for their messaging, Beijing appears to rely on false, or at the very least, highly suspicious personas to create an illusion of popular backing,” Ms Brandt says.
Their message is now ‘in the wild’. But it has not yet proven all that convincing.
“For China, the objective is either retribution or, if there is any truth to the Wuhan lab leak theory, the creation of a diversion to distract from and dilute the truth,” says Mr Schafer.
But playing with conspiracy theories can have unexpected consequences.
“Like a virus, information cannot be controlled once it reaches the general population, and as it spreads, it can mutate in never intended ways.”
It’s part of the latest front in a decades-old campaign to undermine trust, says the Brookings Institution international think-tank.
“From disinformation to conspiracy theories, from social media pile-ons to campus intolerance, (the world is) facing an epistemic crisis in their ability to distinguish fact from fiction and truth from falsehood,” says the Brooking Institution international think-tank.
The evidence is in front of us.
Beijing’s “carpet bombing” of social media platforms with counter-attack conspiracy theories is having an effect.
Fort Detrick has been steadily climbing social media trends charts worldwide.
Especially in parts of the world where distrust of the US is already well entrenched.
“It’s easy to poke holes in Beijing’s Fort Detrick narratives, starting with the fact that the two labs studying coronaviruses in the United States are in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina – not Frederick, Maryland,” says Mr Schafer. “But with influence operations, soundness of logic is less important than repetition.”
We must expect much more of the same, analysts warn.
“It appears China’s more aggressive posture in the information space constitutes more than a brief departure from its previous, more subtle approach,” says Ms Brandt.
“How Beijing implements this new strategy going forward will have implications for the contest that is shaping our information environment and is likely to be a defining feature of geopolitics for decades to come.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel