A disinformation campaign claiming the Covid-19 virus originated from a US military base in Maryland gained popularity in China ahead of the publication of a US intelligence report on the origins of the virus.
In May, US President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day investigation into whether the Covid-19 virus resulted from a laboratory accident or resulted from human contact with an infected animal.
Until then, the “Wuhan lab leak” theory had been dismissed by most scientists as a marginal conspiracy theory.
But now that the report is due for release, China has gone on the offensive. In recent weeks, Chinese sources have amplified a baseless claim that Covid-19 was made in the United States.
Using everything from rap music to fake Facebook posts, experts say the propaganda efforts have been successful in convincing the domestic Chinese public to cast skepticism on international criticism of the country’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic. But, experts say, it hasn’t done much to legitimize China to the outside world.
What are the allegations?
Most Americans may never have heard of Fort Detrick, but it is becoming a household name in China.
Chinese propagandists have pushed a plot suggesting that the Covid-19 coronavirus was fabricated and leaked from the military facility in Frederick, Maryland, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Washington DC.
Once the center of the US biological weapons program, it is now home to biomedical laboratories that search for viruses, including Ebola and smallpox. Its complicated history has sparked speculation in China.
A rap song by Chinese nationalist group CD Rev suggesting nefarious plots hatched by the lab was recently endorsed by Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry.
The beats of the song – “How many plots have come out of your lab / How many corpses hanging on a tag / What are you hiding / Open the door to Fort Detrick” – are awkward, but its feeling “speaks in our minds”, Mr. Zhao wrote in a tweet in August.
Mr. Zhao, who is known for his aggressive diplomatic style, was instrumental in spreading the “American origin” theory. Several tweets from his account last year first drew attention to Fort Detrick. “What is behind the closure of the Fort Detrick biolab? He wrote in July 2020: “When will the United States invite experts to investigate the origin of the virus in the United States?”
In recent months, his calls have been joined by Chinese diplomats based in various countries, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV even aired a one-hour special, “The Dark History Behind Fort Detrick,” focusing on containment breaks in the lab in 2019, to reinforce allegations of lax lab security, echoed by Chinese officials and state media. A related hashtag has had more than 100 million views on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
“We are seeing a more sustained campaign involving more and geographically distributed accounts to promote the narrative,” said of Fort Detrick, Ira Hubert, senior survey analyst at social analysis firm Graphika.
Another popular theory, pushed by the nationalist tabloid Global Times, attempts to link the origins of the virus to American coronavirus expert Dr Ralph Baric and researchers at Fort Detrick.
The journal suggested that Dr Baric created a novel coronavirus that infects humans, citing an article co-authored by a North Carolina-based researcher on transmission of the virus from bats in Natural medicine.
In an editor’s note, the newspaper said it knew the newspaper was being used to spread false theory, but the note was not included in the Global Times report.
The newspaper also launched an online petition calling on 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 appeal would have garnered over 25 million “signatures.”
Propaganda from Switzerland to Fiji
Experts say Beijing is seeking to bring the non-Chinese public into the dispute over the origins of Covid-19 to further muddy the waters.
A clear example came in July, when Chinese state media began relentlessly reporting on criticisms 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 China’s attack on the question of origin research that it is reluctant to open its eyes to the data and the conclusions.”
But the Swiss Embassy in China later said that there is no register of a Swiss citizen with the name, and urged the Chinese media to remove the “false” reports.
Experts believe that “Wilson Edwards” probably does not exist, but rather is a fictitious propaganda profile. His Facebook page was launched the day he published the Covid-19 post. A new Twitter account under the name “Wilson Edwards” also tweeted the same message that day.
The story of “Wilson Edwards” appears to have been first reported via an obscure Fiji-based Chinese-English bilingual medium, The Voice of South Pacific.
While it is not clear whether Voice of South Pacific is supported by the Chinese state, its mobile app is being developed by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the state-owned China News Service, the world’s largest media outlet. Chinese state to report Edwards’ claims.
The BBC discovered that even before Edwards’ Facebook post attracted media attention, it had been shared by hundreds of Facebook accounts claiming to be based in South East 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 reports on their Facebook pages, praising Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
There is no conclusive evidence as to who operates these social media accounts, they often directly quote phrases used by Chinese state spokespersons or by major Chinese state media.
And Graphika, the social analysis company, identified a network of fake and secret pro-Chinese accountss on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube which are key amplifiers of Fort Detrick’s theory.
What does this say about Chinese propaganda?
China’s latest global influence campaign on Covid-19 may not have made the country many new friends abroad, but analysts say it has been successful in winning over Beijing’s domestic public.
“For the most part, the biggest concern [of the Chinese government] is national legitimacy, ”Maria Repnikova, assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, told the BBC.
More and more Chinese diplomats recently broke into Twitter, which is banned in the country, but their combative posts appear to be aimed at a national audience.
Prof Repnikova says China has blurred the lines between domestic and external propaganda for years, but this strategy is not without risks, as less effective external messages could strain China’s foreign relations.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media picked more foreign sources and foreign video bloggers have played an increasingly important role in Beijing’s disinformation campaign. These efforts are aimed at “legitimizing China from the outside”, according to Professor Repnikova.
The increase in foreign elements in China’s disinformation campaign signals a shift in Beijing’s propaganda strategy.
“It’s not just about telling a story,” says Prof. Repnikova, “It’s about creating a story.”