Show an ad over header. AMP

How China, Russia and Iran amplify COVID disinformation

China, Russia and Iran — drawing on one another’s online disinformation — amplified false theories that the COVID-19 virus originated in a U.S. bioweapons lab or was designed by Washington to weaken their countries, according to a nine-month investigation by AP and the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

Why it matters: Through a series of overlapping, if slapdash, efforts, America's global adversaries benefited from mutually reinforcing counter-narratives propagated online that aimed to falsely place responsibility for the pandemic on the U.S. and often to sow doubt on its actual origin within China.


  • The extensive use by these countries of each other's COVID-19 disinformation shows just how international — and mutually reinforcing — these online networks have become.
  • The investigation was “based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms,” says the AP.

Details: Although seemingly less coordinated than other such efforts, extensive anti-American COVID-19 disinformation efforts first popped up in Russia, according to the AP/ DFRLab report.

  • A Russian military media outlet was the first identified publication that ran a story advancing the claim that COVID-19 was American, not Chinese, in origin.
  • In the first few months of 2020, “more than 70 articles appeared in pro-Kremlin media making similar bioweapons claims in Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, English and German,” writes AP.

However, “it was China — not Russia — that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak,” says the report.

  • By March 2020, Chinese state media outlets, as well as diplomats on social media, were pushing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the United States at Fort Detrick in Maryland and brought to China during the 2019 Military World Games, which were held that October in Wuhan.
  • That month, “an anonymous petition appeared on the White House’s now-defunct ‘We the People’ portal. It urged U.S. authorities to clarify whether the virus had been developed at Fort Detrick and leaked from the lab. The petition was lavishly covered by China’s state media, despite getting only 1,426 signatures,” writes AP.
  • By May, Chinese state media broadcast “a slick documentary about Fort Detrick set to spooky music that has been viewed on its YouTube channel more than 82,000 times” and “played on China’s Bilibili platform 378,000 times.”
  • Chinese diplomats also began extensively posting COVID-related disinformation on Twitter, which is banned in China itself.
  • On popular social networks within China like Weibo, viral posts drew from Russian and Chinese disinformation to spread the false “U.S. bioweapons” theory of COVID-19.

Of note: Instead of using botnets or Russian IRA-type troll farms, the Chinese relied on their vast network of state-affiliated news outlets, as well as Chinese government accounts on social media, to propagate these false theories, writes DFRLab.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, also began to push out false claims — Russian and Chinese in origin — that COVID-19 was a U.S. bioweapon designed to target Washington’s enemies.

  • The Iranians’ false allegations “were, in turn, amplified by Russian media and picked up in China, where they fueled further speculation,” writes AP.
  • An Iranian disinformation network active on Facebook, Google and Twitter also “activated a network of websites and covert social media accounts to accuse the U.S. of engineering the virus and praise[d] the leadership and benevolence of China,” writes the AP.

Yes, but: The DFRLab report also explores how a separate, earlier stream of disinformation — revolving around the false assertion that COVID-19 was purposefully leaked from a Chinese lab — spread online through U.S.-based far-right networks like QAnon and eventually bled into right-wing media more broadly.

  • “The traditional view about conspiracy theories is that they exist along the fringes of the information space, apart from the mainstream and official communications. However, in the United States, these conspiracy theories have permeated all layers of discourse, particularly being embraced by elements of mainstream media and individual conservative policymakers during the Trump administration,” writes DFRLab.
  • Chinese government disinformation pushing the false “U.S. bioweapons thesis” about COVID-19 followed this earlier U.S.-based conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon — paralleling and inverting it.

Virginia lawmakers vote to legalize marijuana in 2024

Lawmakers in Virginia on Saturday approved compromise legislation that would legalize marijuana in 2024, putting the state a step closer to becoming the first in the South to end prohibition on the drug, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Why it matters: The legislation will make Virginia the 16th state to legalize marijuana, per Politico. It would add to a slate of laws that have seen Virginia move in a more progressive direction during the tenure of Gov. Ralph Northam.

Keep reading... Show less

Scammers seize on COVID confusion

Data: FTC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Scamming has skyrocketed in the past year, and much of the increase is attributed to COVID-related scams, more recently around vaccines.

Why it matters: The pandemic has created a prime opportunity for scammers to target people who are already confused about the chaotic rollouts of things like stimulus payments, loans, contact tracing and vaccines. Data shows that older people who aren't digitally literate are the most vulnerable.

Keep reading... Show less

Biden explains justification for Syria strike in letter to congressional leadership

President Biden told congressional leadership in a letter Saturday that this week's airstrike against facilities tied to Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria was consistent with the U.S. right to self-defense.

Why it matters: Some Democrats, including Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have criticized the Biden administration for the strike and demanded a briefing.

Keep reading... Show less

FDA authorizes Johnson & Johnson's one-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

The Food and Drugs Administration on Saturdayissued an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's one-shot coronavirus vaccine.

Why it matters: The authorization of a third coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. will help speed up the vaccine rollout across the country, especially since the J&J shot only requires one dose as opposed to Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's two-shot vaccines.

Keep reading... Show less

Italy tightens COVID restrictions for 5 regions amid warnings of a growing prevalence of variants

Italy on Saturday announced it was tightening restrictions in five of the country's 20 regions in an effort curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Driving the news: The announcement comes as health experts and scientists warn of the more transmissible coronavirus variants, per Reuters.

Keep reading... Show less

Palestinian Authority announces new COVID restrictions as cases surge

The Palestinian Authority on Saturday announced fresh coronavirus restrictions, including a partial lockdown, for the occupied West Bank as COVID-19 cases surge.

The big picture: The new measures come as Israel, which leads the world in vaccinations, faces increased pressure to ensure Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have equal access to vaccines.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories