China has stepped up a campaign to shift blame for the coronavirus pandemic by using fake social media accounts to promote conspiracy theories about the source of the virus, the State Department said, as Beijing increasingly adopts Russian-style disinformation techniques.
Analysts with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center have found evidence of a campaign linked to the ruling Communist Party in which accounts run by Chinese ambassadors and other Foreign Ministry officials gained hundreds of new followers a day. Many were newly created accounts that the U.S. suspects are part of an automated bot network.
The evidence points to “an artificial network to follow and amplify messages from Chinese diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials,” Lea Gabrielle, coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, told reporters on Friday. She said the campaign was part of an effort “to make the world see China as the global leader in the response rather than the source of the pandemic.”
Twitter, however, cast doubt on the claim. An initial review of 5,000 accounts found some belonging to nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and government entities, including Canada, according to a Twitter representative. There’s no indication the accounts were “unduly deferential or supportive of Chinese positions,” and some were actually opposed, the representative said.
Gabrielle portrayed the move as part of an effort by China to emulate Russian tactics that came to light during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While Gabrielle declined to detail the extent of Russian and Chinese coordination, she said the two countries’ narratives have converged and “echo each other.”
A report Thursday by the Center for a New American Security warned of an emerging “loose tactical division of labor” between Russia and China as they seek to sow disinformation weakening liberal democracies and alliances.
In early March, Gabrielle testified that Russia was spreading virus-related narratives to advance its interests. Later that month, she told reporters that China was spreading a false claim that the virus originated in the U.S. and another about the “supremacy” of China in handling the crisis.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has led U.S. efforts to blame China for failing to reveal what it knows about the origin of the pandemic, China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, called this week for an end to the “blame game.”