U.S. Adversaries Are Accelerating, Coordinating Coronavirus Disinformation, Report Says

Excerpt:

The State Department report was produced by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which coordinates the government’s effort to identify and counter disinformation by foreign adversaries.

“The GEC assesses that their current convergence on Covid-19 disinformation has accelerated as the pandemic increasingly impacts the world,” the report said.

“Russia, China and Iran do have media cooperation agreements and I think this is important because disinformation narratives are known to originate from official state news sources,” she said.Lea Gabrielle, the GEC’s special envoy, said much of the cooperation appeared to be opportunistic, but there was evidence of coordinated action between the three U.S. adversaries as well.

A Chinese embassy official in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York said the U.S. was to blame for any propaganda related to the outbreak.

“For sure, any disinformation or propaganda on the coronavirus pandemic is emanating from the U.S. administration, not Iran,” the official said in an email to the Journal. “U.S. media [is full of] stories of lies and disinformation spread by the administration.”

U.S. Adversaries Are Accelerating, Coordinating Coronavirus Disinformation, Report Says

An echo chamber fed by China, Russia and Iran feeds denigrating information about the U.S., according to State Department assessment

Among the unproven claims circulating in Russian and Chinese information channels is that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created the new coronavirus with pharmaceutical companies to make money from treatment.

The claim has been linked to a report on a Russian state-owned TV network. The Gates Foundation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mark Suzman, CEO of the foundation, said earlier this month that falsehoods may spread faster than the disease and cause real harm.

Another example was the repeated claim by Russian and Iranian state information sources that the virus is a U.S. bioweapon. Last month, Chinese officials alleged the virus was created by the U.S. military.

“It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent!” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Twitter. The U.S. military has described that charge as “false & absurd.”

Bill and Melinda Gates in Kirkland, Wash., in February 2019. Among the unproven claims circulating is that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped create the new coronavirus.

PHOTO: ELAINE THOMPSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Questions about how the health crisis originated are one part of a broader diplomatic and public-relations battle between the U.S. and China over the pandemic.

U.S. intelligence agencies are assessing whether the virus escaped from a Chinese biological laboratory in Wuhan, according to senior Trump administration officials.

The State Department report was produced by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which coordinates the government’s effort to identify and counter disinformation by foreign adversaries.

“The GEC assesses that their current convergence on Covid-19 disinformation has accelerated as the pandemic increasingly impacts the world,” the report said.

Lea Gabrielle, the GEC’s special envoy, said much of the cooperation appeared to be opportunistic, but there was evidence of coordinated action between the three U.S. adversaries as well.

“Russia, China and Iran do have media cooperation agreements and I think this is important because disinformation narratives are known to originate from official state news sources,” she said.

A Chinese embassy official in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York said the U.S. was to blame for any propaganda related to the outbreak.

“For sure, any disinformation or propaganda on the coronavirus pandemic is emanating from the U.S. administration, not Iran,” the official said in an email to the Journal. “U.S. media [is full of] stories of lies and disinformation spread by the administration.”

Ms. Gabrielle said that the public has a right to truthful and factual information, and that the U.S. is seeking to expose false narratives and help audiences recognize disinformation.

A Russian embassy spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Russia has denied engaging in disinformation campaigns.

U.S. intelligence officials are also examining whether foreign actors may be trying to seed or amplify anti-lockdown protests in the U.S. The State Department report didn’t address whether the propaganda was feeding into anti-shutdown protests.

Ms. Gabrielle declined to comment on the role of disinformation in U.S. domestic affairs but said that the propaganda appeared to target audiences globally and appeared in a variety of languages, including, for example, French, German and Italian.

All social media and messaging platforms appeared to be vulnerable to exploitation, Ms. Gabrielle said. Earlier this week, a watchdog group warned that posts on Facebook are promoting conspiracy theories and bogus Covid-19 cures, defying efforts by the social-media giant to crack down on misinformation.

Ms. Gabrielle said the false claim that the virus was a U.S. bioweapon reflected a broad effort to undermine democratic society as well as control public opinion at home.

“All of those together, I think, are very concerning trends,” she said.

The State Department’s GEC works closely with other U.S. government agencies including the intelligence community. The report was shared with U.S. government partners, as well as foreign allies.

The U.S. and British governments warned earlier this month that hacking groups tied to foreign actors are increasingly taking advantage of the pandemic to target individuals and organizations. The joint cyber alert didn’t name specific countries.

The World Health Organization is among the organizations that have been hit by a ramp-up in hacking attempts against its systems, the agency’s information security chief said last month.

Write to Jessica Donati at jessica.donati@wsj.com

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