Chinese conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was some kind of US military bioweapon date back to January, months before a foreign ministry official in Beijing began to spread the same fake news, according to a new study.
An analysis from the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center has revealed how fringe conspiracy theories can eventually become weaponized by governments to further their geopolitical ends.
Zhao Lijian, a deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, took to Twitter on March 12 to suggest “the US army brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” He included a clip from the chief of the US Center for Disease Control who merely said that some patients who died from COVID-19 might not have been tested.
This was followed a few hours later by another tweet of Zhao’s which shared an article from a conspiracy theory site that “the virus originated in the US.”
After Washington complained at the unfounded allegations, Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, distanced Beijing from the rumors.
Stanford’s analysis revealed that these could be found online as far back as January 2, when a Chinese language YouTube video dismissed the idea of COVID-19 as a US bioweapon. Chinese Twitter users at the end of the month took the opposite line, claiming the coronavirus was a US creation. These posts remain online, despite the social media site’s crackdown on COVID-19 misinformation.
By February 1, speculation began to spread that the virus was linked to US attendance at the Military World Games, which took place in Wuhan in October 2019.
The Stanford report authors urged online users to exercise skepticism at what they read online, even when posted by government officials.
“In times of uncertainty, speculation and political blame games, continued vigilance is key when it comes to assessing and sharing information — even, or sometimes especially, when it comes from state channels,” they said.
“Social media companies need to maintain their efforts to proactively remove unfounded speculation and disinformation on their own platforms, regardless of who posts it. Citizens and journalists should question the intentions an actor promoting online content may have before possibly amplifying misleading voices.”.
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