The Defense Department is working with the State Department, allies, partners and other agencies to curb this trend, Pentagon officials said in a telephone briefing for reporters last week.
“We’ve seen increasing unity of effort in response to COVID, both within Western democracies, but also across allies and partners, to include terrific sharing of medical lessons learned,” said Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
Cooper specifically pointed out instances where the Russian government sought to sow disinformation in the West.
“I think the most pernicious disinformation that we have to contend with is the disinformation that is sowing global … mistrust and confusion,” she said. “These are messages that are endangering global health because they’re undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public.”
An example of this disinformation came to light in March, when Russia Today and Sputnik broadcast that hand-washing was ineffective against coronavirus. Another “alternative news source” in Russia reported that there was no pandemic and that the deaths in Italy were the common flu, she said.
In early January, Russian news outlets broadcast that they had discovered a cure: They hadn’t. Further, they stated that it was really U.S. pharmaceutical companies that were spreading rumors about the virus to drum up business. It wasn’t, Cooper said.
“You can see how they could cause individual citizens to act in ways that contradict good advice that they are being given by public health officials,” Cooper said.
While Russia may be the most egregious culprit, China is also involved in the disinformation process, Chad Sbragia, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters. “In terms of specific disinformation campaigns, the one … that [I] was most concerned with … was the false accusation that COVID-19 began with a U.S. Army service member bringing that to China somehow,” he said. “That was just patently false and, frankly, unhelpful. It’s those kind of activities that we see that are just not what the global environment community needs at this time.”
Given that the virus first appeared in China and that Chinese medical professionals had first-hand experience in how to combat COVID, the United States was disappointed with the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda and disinformation campaign effort to shift responsibility of the pandemic to others — “which was unfounded, futile and really counterproductive,” Sbargia said.
Iran has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and the Iranian government has also spread disinformation, saying the United States was responsible for the virus.
“We’re seeing a variety of actors around the world who are using COVID-19 to target or blame Western allies, or the United States in particular,” Cooper said. “And I really think … of it as a global disinformation ecosystem where a news item that generates in one part of the world then gets amplified and picked up elsewhere.”
U.S. officials have been exposing this disinformation, Cooper said. “We’re calling on all countries — Russia included — to rein in malign actors that are spreading misleading, disruptive information about the virus,” he added.