A European Union agency reports a massive disinformation attack, claiming the U.S. created the virus and China is saving the world from it.
by Massimo Introvigne
In 2015, the European Union created the East StratCom Task Force to fight the spread of fake news online. The Task Force mostly targeted disinformation originating from Russia. With the spread of COVID-19, the Task Force has extended its work to fake news produced in China. It has also noticed that the CCP works hand in hand with the usual Russian outlets and troll factories that create thousands of fake news posts on social media every day. It is very much possible that the CCP has sub-contracted Russian entities, which appears to be more specialized in this peculiar business.
The CCP, however, also works on its own. A report by the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) dated April 1 mentions a study by the international investigative journalism agency ProPublica. The study reports that there are at least 10,000 fake Twitter accounts controlled by the CCP and used to spread propaganda internationally. Some of these accounts were created in good faith by real people, who became less active on Twitter and took time to notice that their accounts had been hijacked and used to spread pro-CCP fake news. They include, ProPublica reported, “a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia.” It is unclear, the study said, whether the CCP hijacked the accounts itself or purchased them from professional hackers.
With the coronavirus crisis, the CCP became more active, and also more creative. For example, it created a false Twitter account @RNA_chinese, which looked very much like the popular account @RFA_chinese, tweeting news from Radio Free Asia, except that @RNA_chinese tweeted Chinese propaganda. The look-alike account was used to tweet messages claiming that the U.S. created the virus and that Italy was being “saved” from it by Chinese help, the second a popular theme in Internet fake news campaign, greatly exaggerating the aid China supplied to Italy. After widespread protest, Twitter closed the account.
The CCP also contacted, through fake accounts, Twitter users with thousands of followers, offering money to them if they would accept to retweet propaganda. Unfortunately, one of the proposals went to the Australian-based dissident Chinese cartoonist Badiucao, who has some 70,000 followers on Twitter. He was offered 1,700 renminbi (around $240) per post and blew the whistle. He received insults and threats on Twitter after this.
On April 2, the European Union anti-fake-news task force analyzed the content of virus-related propaganda spread by Chinese and Russian fake accounts and troll factories. The most aggressively promoted story is that the virus was created by the U.S. as a tool to attack Chinese economy and China’s reputation.
Even the French’s 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus (1503–1566) was used to promote the fake news. Nostradamus is very popular in East Asia, particularly in Japan, much more than in its native Europe. It is now alleged that he predicted the COVID-19 epidemic and the salvific role of China, as he mentioned a “great plague” that would rage in a “sea city” and a “noble lady” intervening to fight it. The “sea city” was identified with Hong Kong, claiming that either it will be severely affected by the virus in the future, or the protests there hampered Chinese reaction to the epidemics. The “noble lady” saving the world from the virus is either China, or some female figure in the Chinese government. The European Union anti-fake-news task force tracked down the Nostradamus story, whose variations are now widespread on the Web, to an obscure propaganda outlet, Ukraina.ru, created to promote the Russian position on Ukraine and Crimea.