Among powerful forces around the world, Beijing’s propaganda machines played a key role in churning out conspiracies about the coronavirus originating from other countries, according to a nine-month investigation by Associated Press.
Twitter accounts tied to China lied that COVID came from Maine lobsters
Twitter accounts linked to China were discovered spreading misinformation about the origins of COVID-19, such as lies that the virus came from a shipment of Maine lobsters to Wuhan.
Schliebs studies disinformation, propaganda and divisive political news content in the U.K. online information ecosystem at the Oxford Internet Institute. He linked the tweet to hundreds of Twitter accounts, some real and some fake, all of them spreading pro-China misinformation.
The tweet by Liyou said: “Major suspect of covid via cold chain identified: A MU298 of Nov. 11, 2019 carrying food from Maine, US to Huanan Seafood Market, Wuhan, Hubei via Shanghai. During the next few weeks, many workers around moving this batch of seafood got infected.”
These narratives spread by China-linked accounts are nothing new, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Early in the pandemic, Chinese sources spread the theory that SARS CoV-2 originated at Fort Detrick and was spread to China by U.S. military,” says Jamieson. “The platforms can remove it, or if they decide against doing so, can downgrade it or flag it and attach fact-checking content.”
Schliebs echoes similar insights from his Oxford research.
“Almost since the beginning of the outbreak, the question of the origin of COVID has been of core importance to the Chinese propaganda apparatus,” Schliebs says. “This coordinated operation was clearly trying to promote narratives in line with Beijing’s general propaganda strategy and geopolitical objectives.”
Once Schliebs sent the information to Twitter, they suspended the accounts tied to misinformation.
“We notified Twitter last week, and they were very responsive and suspended the accounts very rapidly within a few hours. Fortunately, we detected the campaign as it was still in its early growth phase and before it could really start to reach and impact real genuine audiences,” Schliebs told USA TODAY.
Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.