Only on AP: China's role in COVID disinformation

An Associated Press investigation, in collaboration with the Atlantic Council, found that China took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak. (Feb. 15)

Video Transcript

- While the world was battling the coronavirus, another war was raging online, and a new power player had emerged. An investigation by the Associated Press in collaboration with the Atlantic Council found that the Chinese government has essentially weaponized Twitter and Facebook as part of a relentless and ongoing propaganda war to deflect blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.

ERIKA KINETZ: People traditionally think about Russia when they think about foreign information operations. With COVID, that really began to change, and we found that China played a central role with COVID disinformation.

- The AP and the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research lab analyzed millions of interactions on Twitter from last year and compiled hundreds of articles and posts on other social media platforms around the world. The investigation found that Chinese diplomats had added dozens and dozens of accounts to Twitter and Facebook, even though those platforms are banned in China.

MAREIKE OHLBERG: The Chinese government has an incredibly well developed disinformation apparatus.

- Mareike Ohlberg co-authored a book on Chinese propaganda. She says, China has traditionally used that disinformation apparatus on its own people, but she says that domestic propaganda machine is now increasingly being aimed abroad.

- Western countries, for the first time, saw China engaging in this more what's known as a Russian style tactics of throwing mud and seeing what sticks.

- The AP and Atlantic Council researchers found that the Chinese government initially tried to tamp down on COVID conspiracy theories.

DONALD TRUMP: When the China virus invaded our shores--

- But as former President Donald Trump, Republican members of Congress and others continued to suggest that China had created and leaked the virus. Beijing fought back.

- Leading US officials pushed forward these theories without presenting evidence to support their claims. And as those voices intensified, China then began to move from defense to offense, and really, double down on its claims that this virus was possibly created by the US military.

- One key factor was Zhao [? Legian, ?] a spokesman for China's foreign ministry. Zhao suggested that the virus was created in a lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland and brought to Wuhan in late 2019.

- Those tweets were amplified by tens of thousands of accounts around the world in dozens of languages, which, together, had tens of millions of followers.

- The virus was first identified in China, and the scientific consensus is that it was not manufactured. International researchers have traveled to Wuhan, trying to pinpoint the pandemic's origin. But Ohlberg says, China's tactics have been enough to muddy the waters.

- And that to the Chinese government, at least in the international context, would be a win.

- In a detailed response to the AP, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its diplomats have used social media, like other diplomats, to present facts and have been "resolutely opposed to political manipulation through the epidemic." The statement goes on to say that China has always opposed the creation and spread of false information. At the same time, China is also a victim of all kinds of false information about China. Yet, the ruling Communist Party continues to push the Fort Detrick story.

HUA CHUNYING: [NON-ENGLISH]

- There were multiple polls, which showed that by March, one in three to one in four people in a number of countries around the world believed that COVID was made and possibly created by a hostile foreign power.

- Iran, Russia, the US, and many others played big roles in this drama. But it's clear China had the most to lose and to gain. Al [? Inbreed, ?] Associated Press.