Security experts at FireEye and Google in 2019 identified a disinformation operation that initially aimed to discredit the Hong Kong democracy movement. The campaign consisted of hundreds of social media accounts in English and Chinese.
The campaign has now spread across Twitter, Facebook and Google to dozens of sites around the world, Reuters reported. Such sites include vKontakte, LiveJournal and others in Russian, German, Spanish and other languages.
The campaign shifted focus over the past year to push Chinese disinformation about the origins of COVID-19, including the narrative that the virus first emerged in the United States and that the U.S. military developed it.
Multiple Russian-language accounts have pushed a message that says “U.S. Ft. Detrick was the source of COVID-19.”
Fort Detrick is a U.S. Army facility in Maryland, which once housed a U.S. bio-weapons program and now houses a biomedical lab researching viruses including Ebola and smallpox. The facility has become a focus for Chinese disinformation campaigns, which push it as a counterpoint to the Wuhan labs that have so far remained the focus of investigations into the origins of the virus, according to the BBC.
A Chinese nationalist group released a rap song through social media, with lyrics that suggested the U.S. was behind the virus. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman promoted the song, saying it “speaks our minds.”
“We see a more sustained campaign involving more numerous and geographically spread accounts to promote the narrative” about Fort Detrick, says Ira Hubert, a senior investigative analyst at social analytics firm Graphika.
FireEye published a report Wednesday that highlighted the campaign’s methods, which include linking between each other and using the same photos and language in their posts. The posts have so far not gained traction with authentic users in a significant way, however.
“A lot of it is tweeting into the void,” said John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at FireEye.
While signs of the campaign appear distinct and clear, the agencies that have tracked and identified the posts have not been able to find proof of involvement by any specific arm or ally of the Chinese government.