A disinformation campaign claiming that the virus that causes COVID-19 originated from a US military base in Maryland has gained popularity in China.
This occurs before the publication of a US intelligence report on the origins of the virus.
In May, US President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day investigation to determine whether SARS-Cov-2 had arisen after a laboratory accident or emerged from human contact with an infected animal.
Until then, the “Wuhan lab leak” theory had been dismissed by most scientists as a fringe conspiracy theory.
But now that the report is due to be released, China has gone on the offensive .
In recent weeks, Chinese sources have been amplifying an unsubstantiated claim that this virus was created in the US.
All sorts of things have been used to spread the information, from rap music to fake Facebook posts .
According to experts, propaganda efforts have been successful in convincing the Chinese national audience to be skeptical of international criticism of China’s role in the covid-19 pandemic.
But they add that this has done little to legitimize China in the outside world.
What are the accusations?
Most Americans may never have heard of Fort Detrick, but it is becoming a household name in China.
Chinese propagandists promote a conspiracy suggesting that the coronavirus occurred and leaked from the military installation in Frederick, Maryland, about 50 miles north of Washington DC.
The base was formerly the center of the US biological weapons program and now houses biomedical laboratories that investigate viruses such as Ebola and smallpox.
Its complicated history has sparked speculation in China. A rap song by Chinese nationalist group CD Rev suggests that the lab is hatching wicked conspiracies and was recently endorsed by Zhao Lijian , the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“The rhymes of the song: ‘How many conspiracies came out of your laboratory / How many corpses hanging a tag / What are you hiding / Open the door Fort Detrick’ are rare, but their feeling ‘says what one thinks'” Zhao wrote in a tweet on August.
Zhao, known for his aggressive style of diplomacy, has played an important role in spreading the “American origin” theory of the coronavirus.
Several tweets from his account last year brought attention to Fort Detrick .
“What’s behind the closure of the biological lab at Fort Detrick?” wrote in July 2020. “When will the US invite experts to investigate the origin of the virus in the US?”
In recent months, Chinese diplomats located in various countries have joined Zhao’s remarks.
And the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV even issued a one-hour special report titled “The Dark Story Behind Fort Detrick,” which focuses on containment breaches in the laboratory in 2019, and reinforces claims that laboratory security is negligent, which are repeated by Chinese officials and state media.
A related hashtag has had more than 100 million views on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“We see a more sustained campaign involving more numerous and geographically distributed accounts to promote the narrative” about Fort Detrick, says Ira Hubert, senior research analyst at social analytics firm Graphika.
Another popular theory, promoted by the nationalist tabloid Global Times, attempts to connect the origins of the virus with a US coronavirus expert , Dr. Ralph Baric, and researchers at Fort Detrick.
The newspaper suggested that Baric created a new coronavirus that infects humans, citing an article the North Carolina-based researcher co-wrote on the transmission of the virus from bats published in Nature Medicine.
The magazine, in an editor’s note, said it is aware that the document was being used to spread the false theory, but that note was not included in the Global Times report.
The newspaper also launched an online petition asking Chinese netizens to sign an open letter demanding a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into Fort Detrick.
People could “sign” the letter with a single click, and the order reportedly gathered more than 25 million “signatures.”
Propaganda from Switzerland to Fiji
Experts say Beijing is trying to involve non-Chinese audiences in the dispute over the origins of COVID-19 to further muddy the situation.
A clear example occurred in July, when Chinese state media began reporting on criticism written in a Facebook post by “Wilson Edwards,” a user claiming to be a Swiss scientist.
“Mr. Edwards” argued that Washington was “so obsessed with attacking China on the issue of origin tracing that it is reluctant to open its eyes to the data and findings.”
But the Swiss embassy in China later declared that there is no record of a Swiss citizen by that name, and urged Chinese media to remove the “fake news” reports.
Experts believe that “Wilson Edwards” probably does not exist and that it is a fictitious propaganda profile.
His Facebook page was launched the day he wrote the post about covid-19.
A new Twitter account by the name of “Wilson Edwards” also tweeted the same message that day.
The “Wilson Edwards” story appears to have been reported for the first time through an obscure bilingual Anglo-Chinese outlet based in Fiji, Voice of South Pacific.
Although it is unclear whether the Voice of South Pacific has the backing of the Chinese state, its mobile app is developed by a subsidiary of the state news agency, China News Service , the first Chinese state media outlet to report on Edwards’ claims. .
The BBC found that even before Edwards’s Facebook post attracted media attention, it had been shared by hundreds of Facebook accounts claiming to be based in Southeast Asia, for example “Eastman Tyla” in Malaysia and “Tyree Schmidt” in Indonesia.
“Tyla” and “Schmidt” also circulated a long and identical list of pro-China news on their Facebook pages, praising Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
There is no conclusive evidence as to who operates these social media accounts, and they often directly quote phrases used by China’s state spokespersons or major Chinese state media.
And Graphika, the social analytics firm, has identified a network of fake and covert pro-China accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that have been major amplifiers of the Fort Detrick theory.
What does this say about China’s propaganda?
China’s recent global influence campaign on COVID-19 may not have won the country many new friends abroad, but analysts say it has been successful in convincing the domestic audience .
“For the most part, the biggest concern [of the Chinese government] is internal legitimacy,” Maria Repnikova, assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, told the BBC.
More Chinese diplomats have recently appeared on Twitter, which is banned in the country, but its combative messages appear to target a national audience.
Professor Repnikova points out that China for years has blurred the lines between internal and external propaganda, but this strategy is not without risks as less effective external messages could put pressure on China’s foreign relations.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media is targeting more foreign sources, and foreign video bloggers have played an increasingly prominent role in Beijing’s disinformation campaign.
These efforts aim to “legitimize China from the outside,” according to Repnikova.
The rise of foreign elements in China’s disinformation campaign signals a shift in Beijing’s propaganda strategy .
“It’s not just about telling a story,” says Repnikova, “it’s about creating a story.”