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Report: Chinese agents pushed coronavirus misinformation in US to cause panic

Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers assigned to Task Force Assurance prepare boxes of personal protecting equipment (PPE) and load them for local distribution as part of the COVID-19 response, April 18, 2020, at the Kliever National Guard Armory, Portland, Oregon. These emergency shipments will be delivered by the Oregon National Guard to Assisted Living Facilities throughout the state that are experiencing severe shortages. (National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
April 23, 2020

In March a wave of social media posts and text campaigns spread a rumor that the U.S. military would soon begin a nationwide coronavirus quarantine, prompting the White House National Security Council (NSC) to issue a tweet to dispel the rumors.

Since the March incident, U.S. officials have speculated as to whether viral messages were created by a hostile foreign actor. The New York Times reported Wednesday that six unnamed U.S. intelligence officials from six different intelligence agencies now believe Chinese agents were at least part of the effort to help spread that misinformation.

“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” said one of the misinformation texts, claiming to have spoken with a source in the Department of Homeland Security. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”

The messages reportedly spread widely over a 48 hour period before the NSC tweeted that the messages were “FAKE.”

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At the time, Bloomberg also reported a cyberattack intended to overload the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) computer systems. Officials who observed the hack and the text message efforts believed the two incidents were linked.

The six intelligence officials who spoke to The New York Times described amplification methods used to spread the disinformation. While at least two sources assessed the messages likely did not start with Chinese actors, the sources did observe patterns of likely Chinese actors creating fake social media accounts to push the disinformation among Americans sympathetic to the message who would in turn help it spread.

Several of the New York Times sources said they could not reveal how they knew the actors sowing disinformation messages among Americans were in fact Chinese, citing the need to protect sources monitoring activities in Beijing.

The intelligence officials said the sophistication of the misinformation effort was particularly alarming given they were spread through text messages, in addition to social media posts. The officials said the method of propagating mass disinformation through text messages has not been seen before. The use of text messaging apps and other encrypted messaging apps are also harder to track than posts on social media platforms.

The officials also raised the possibility that agents at Chinese diplomatic posts within the U.S. helped spread the fake messages. The officials also noted the disinformation methods have gone beyond the fake messages and have said high ranking Chinese officials have also instructed their agencies to promote disinformation about the virus.

Reports source from the U.S. State Department have assessed matching efforts among Chinese, Russian and Iranian actors to spread similar propaganda messages about the coronavirus. Among those messages are claims that the U.S. created the virus as a bioweapon, or that it has failed to stop the virus’ spread, and that China has been effective and transparent in its handling of the virus.

Some intelligence officers told The New York Times they have been particularly alarmed at messages aimed at spreading divisions amongst European governments. They have seen a simultaneous effort at promoting positive press about Chinese efforts to provide medical support to other countries struggling with the virus.