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Report: Russia, China, Iran are waging identical coronavirus propaganda campaigns against US

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018, China's President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders' Summit. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)
April 22, 2020

A new U.S. State Department report revealed that Russia, China, and Iran are all running propaganda campaigns with matching narratives that blame the U.S. for the coronavirus pandemic.

Politico obtained the State Department report, which is not yet public, that found all three nations’ propaganda campaigns contain the same claims: coronavirus did not start in China and the virus was actually a U.S. bioweapon spread by U.S. troops; the U.S. is using the outbreak to score political points; China was effective in its response to the outbreak while the U.S. was not, and all three countries are managing the virus well while the U.S. is struggling to bear the economic toll.

The report was compiled by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is a newer office focused on global information campaigns. The center’s report claims that while the three governments have worked in coordination in the past, that the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in a rapid effort to coordinate their stories than has been observed in the past.

Overlaps in narratives had previously been described as somewhat narrow. For example, all three countries have defended President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government, which the U.S. does not recognize as legitimate. All three have also accused the U.S. of failing to meet its commitments to international agreements.

The difference between prior information overlaps and now has been noticeable to the GEC. They reportedly assessed that by around February 2020, Russia, China and Iran all began to repeat the same narratives and that their increased propaganda has coincided with each nation’s struggles to maintain public support within their own populations.

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Lea Gabrielle, the head of the GEC noted that, along with generally matching their narratives together, China has more readily invited Russian propaganda past its normally expansive internet censorship efforts.

“What we saw as the health crisis started to come under control in China is that the CCP really started pushing a concerted effort to try to reshape that narrative,” Gabrielle told Politico. “So in a short period of time the CCP went from letting Russian disinformation claiming the U.S. was the source of the virus proliferate in Chinese social media, to raising questions on state media about the origin’s source, to promoting disinformation that the U.S. was the source of the virus.”

Chinese state media outlets have also recently been observed gearing their messaging towards Arabic language audiences, spreading their blame of the U.S. for coronavirus further along in the Middle East.

The effects of disinformation efforts have already been observed in one instance when the U.S. offered to send medical aid to Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the offer and cited claims the U.S. engineered the coronavirus using Iranian genetic information, to specifically target their population.

Gabrielle noted Chinese efforts have been both defensive and offensive, simultaneously blaming the U.S., while working to promote positive press about China’s handling of the virus. Chinese officials have even asked U.S. lawmakers to promote positive press about its handling of the virus.