STATE DEPARTMENT/PENTAGON — Top U.S. adversaries appear to be coming together, using social media and other cyber means to amplify disinformation regarding the coronavirus, with the intent of harming the United States and hindering efforts to curb the global pandemic.
The accusation, from senior State Department officials, focuses on efforts by Russia, China and Iran. No longer content to simply pump out their own false narratives, the three countries have now formed a sort of axis of disinformation, officials say, by echoing and magnifying each other’s information operations.
“We're seeing Russian, Chinese and Iranian state information operations converging around the same disinformation narrative about COVID-19,” Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), told reporters in a telephone briefing Friday.
“We’re also seeing Russia’s [disinformation] ecosystem promoting narratives advanced by China and Iran,” she said.
On the rise
U.S. officials declined to say whether the virtual collaboration was intentional or just opportunistic. But officials, including those in the Pentagon and in the U.S. intelligence community, have previously accused each of the countries of ramping up disinformation operations.
“The COVID-19 crisis has really provided an opportunity for malign actors to exploit the information space for harmful purposes and really been providing unnecessary distraction from the global community’s focus on this crisis,” Gabrielle said.
According to U.S. and European officials, the bulk of the disinformation has focused on blaming the U.S. or the West for the coronavirus outbreak or on the West’s alleged inability to cope with the crisis.
European officials say Russian-linked cyber actors have been especially active, trying to trick people into believing the pandemic is a hoax or persuade them to try bogus cures.
U.S. officials have also voiced growing concern that the coronavirus pandemic has emboldened China, which is using social media to launch blunt attacks on official social media accounts.
In Iran, senior officials have also echoed false allegations that the U.S. has weaponized the coronavirus.
All three countries have pushed back, rejecting the U.S. and European allegations.
China, in particular, has accused the U.S. of using language to stigmatize China and discredit its efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, U.S. officials have not let up in their criticism and say they are working with private sector partners to monitor and track propaganda from all three countries “in real time.”
Other measures to counter the “global false narratives” include public messaging at home and overseas; diplomatic engagement; and promotion of fact-based information to local audiences through overseas U.S. embassies and consulates.
Social media companies such as Twitter tell VOA they have been briefed, broadly on the government’s concerns regarding disinformation.
It's not all public
But officials and analysts note the problems go far beyond the major social media platforms, adding that much of the disinformation is not easily visible.
“Not all of this disinformation goes viral on Facebook or Twitter,” said Lindsay Gorman, the fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “There are other [forums], which include text messages, which include Facebook groups, which include less viral and less public platforms.
“Stopping it on one level doesn’t necessarily mean you quell it on another,” she said.
A growing number of U.S. lawmakers have been pressing for stronger actions.
Earlier this month, two lawmakers urged Twitter, which is blocked in China, to ban all Chinese Communist Party accounts.
On Thursday, U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked the State Department to launch a multilateral investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
"To refute the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] dangerous disinformation campaign, [the] United States should work with like-minded democracies, including Taiwan, to produce a definitive account of the origins of the virus, the CCP’s culpability, and how their undue influence undermined the legitimacy of the WHO [World Health Organization] at this critical time," McCaul wrote.
Such calls are resonating with some former military officials.
“I think any official, Chinese Communist Party or PRC [People's Republic of China] official, should be banned,” retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding, who served on the National Security Council, told VOA’s Mandarin Service. “I think WeChat, Alibaba, TenCent … all of these platforms ought to be banned as well.”
“Every single day, [People’s Liberation Army] and other folks that are being paid specifically by the Chinese Communist Party to do propaganda and influence are in our midst,” said Spalding, now with the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “If we won’t allow them physically to be on our soil to coerce our citizens … then why would we ever allow them in our networks and in our data?”
Letup appears unlikely
Some caution, however, that no matter what Washington does, the slew of disinformation operations targeting the U.S. are unlikely to let up.
Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are “using cyber operations much better than they have in the past, and are using [them] in ways that take advantage of asymmetric weaknesses in the United States,” said Ben Buchanan, a fellow at the Wilson Center and author of The Hacker and the State, which looks at the role of cyber operations in global politics.
“What we see as a result is this daily, grind-it-out competition between modern nations that is mostly out of view," Buchanan said.
Yuwen Cheng and Zhan Qiao of VOA's Mandarin Service contributed to this report.
The original version of this article, published March 27, 2020, incorrectly identified Robert Spalding as a current U.S. Air Force brigadier general. He is retired. VOA regrets the error.