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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Covid-related social media disinformation campaign by China fell flat

China attempted to use American social media platforms to disseminate a rumor that the United States was pressuring World Health Organization to blame China for the coronavirus, but the rumor never took hold in the U.S. 

(CN) — China has entered the disinformation game, according to a report issued by Facebook parent Meta on Wednesday, although the results have been mixed. 

The social media network released a report that showed social media users connected to China opened up hundreds of fake social media counts to impersonate American citizens and claim the United States government pressured scientists to blame China for the pandemic. 

“The operation brought together the original fake account, several hundred additional inauthentic accounts and a cluster of authentic accounts, including those that belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies across four continents,” the company said in its report. 

China's operation centered on one person, a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards, who took to his Facebook and Twitter accounts to claim the United States was putting pressure on scientists at the World Health Organization studying the origins of the coronavirus to blame China. 

But there is no such biologist, and Meta’s investigation yielded the fact that “Wilson Edwards” was created by individuals in China as part of an organized and multilayered influence operation that Meta deemed “largely unsuccessful.”

“In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona,” the report states. 

Meta began its investigation after the Swiss embassy in Beijing reported having no record of a biologist by the name of Wilson Edwards, a decidedly un-Swiss name. “If you exist, we would like to meet you!” the embassy tweeted.

Meta did not connect the operation directly to the Chinese government but said state-sponsored companies, such as the information security firm Silence Information Technology, participated in the unsuccessful scheme. 

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” Meta said. 

While the operation never took hold in the United States, where the scientific consensus about the novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan, a city in the southern Chinese province of Hubei, is widely accepted. There is still some debate as to whether the virus originated from natural biological sources and began in the city's wet market or whether it was manmade and accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but both theories acknowledge China as the source country. 

Chinese government officials did pick up the fake story about Wilson Edwards and circulated it amongst themselves. The rumor also got coverage from Chinese news outlets like the Global Times and the People’s Daily. 

Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into disinformation at Meta, told reporters Wednesday that approximately 600 accounts were deleted after the investigation was complete. 

The operation was undermined by its clumsy tactics, including similar accounts posting identical messages at similar times, indicating the likelihood of collaboration, according to the report. 

Bret Schafer, who studies disinformation at a nonpartisan think tank in Washington told The Associated Press that the incident demonstrates that China, unlike Russia, has a ways to go if it wants to become sophisticated enough to influence public opinion in the United States with information warfare tactics. 

“The Chinese are still a bit sloppier with what they do, Schafer said. “I can't imagine the Russians doing something like this, where they just create a persona out of thin air.”

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Categories / Health, International, Media, Politics, Technology

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