As the coronavirus overwhelms global health and financial systems and impacts the lives of billions, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of information while the grim statistics mount. Unfortunately, that has allowed disinformation from America’s rivals to flourish, posing a long-term threat to our nation and democratic allies.
During a recent press briefing at the White House alongside President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right to call out China, Russia and Iran for spreading false and disparaging information about America.
China leads today’s anti-American propaganda war by perversely exploiting coronavirus. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao ridiculously declared on Twitter “It may be that the US military brought the epidemic to Wuhan. America needs to be transparent! Make public your data! The United States owes us an explanation!” Beijing blames others despite the origin of coronavirus, which most scientists believe began in a “wet market” in Wuhan where live wild animals like bats and pangolins are slaughtered to eat.
Russia is also reportedly sowing confusion and myths through disinformation by targeting Western countries over the virus response, according to the European Union’s External Action Service.
Iran has ramped up propaganda too. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, General Hossein Salami, suggested that coronavirus could be an “American biological invasion.” IRGC-linked networks go a step further to smear Israel, calling the virus a “Zionist biological terrorist attack.”
Some might ask how they dare attack America and our allies despite the international outcry for humanity? After all, even Gal Gadot, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, led a celebrity montage singalong of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Well, authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and Iran rule with an iron fist and already scoff at Westerners as soft, weak and self-indulgent — that video only reinforces the stereotype. Their populations are large, mostly poor and decidedly not free. Personal liberties are curtailed upon pain of death. Each ranks low on Heritage Foundation’s global 2020 Index of Economic Freedom (China #103, Russia #94, Iran #164), meaning it’s hard to start and operate a business. Not surprisingly, they’re also low on the World Bank’s latest per capita GDP scale, with China 6x less than the U.S., Russia 5x less and Iran over 10x less.
In sum, their ruling classes and hired guns have the poor masses at their mercy.
To maintain legitimacy in power and avoid popular uprisings, they limit information and crush dissent. They specialize in disinformation, both to bolster their own standing domestically and smear societies which are more prosperous and free – in theory dampening popular envy.
It’s important to counter their false narratives for our own self-preservation.
When the legitimacy of democratic governments is damaged badly enough, voters may elect despots with empty promises like Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez. He and his “Chavista” supporters turned one of Latin America’s most prosperous, stable and free nations into one of the poorest, chaotic and least free. Millions have since fled the country.
But it’s not just Venezuela which is vulnerable.
Riding a populist wave of economic discontent powered by issues like skyrocketing student loan debt and university-indoctrinated anti-Americanism here in the U.S., socialist Senator Bernie Sanders was recently on track to become the Democrat nominee for president. Though unlikely, he still could be. Yet even far-left MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, reportedly fired for allegations related to sexual harassment, noted that if the socialists had won the Cold War, “there would have been executions in Central Park.”
In studying history, it’s also worth recalling that perhaps the West’s best known military strategist, 19th century Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz, explored the political dimensions of warfare in his study “On War”. Though the battlefields have expanded and military equipment evolved, the concept he described of total war stemming from the French Revolution and subsequent rise of Napoleon is even more prominent now.
In 21st century conflict, propaganda is the weapon of choice for authoritarians to help them shape political outcomes. While it’s hard to imagine the massed infantry, tank, aircraft and naval battles like during World War II, the “non-kinetic” shots are being fired at Western democracies every day.
So yes, President Trump is right to aggressively counter China’s disinformation. Ditto against proxy voices in the media parroting Beijing’s talking points. It’s the same group of people who torched their own credibility by actively promoting a malicious conspiracy theory that Trump and his associates conspired with Russia to steal the presidential election of 2016 — defaming scores of innocent people for three years. No wonder the legacy media industry is dying.
While coronavirus marches on and the next world calamity awaits, democratic allies must continually coordinate efforts amongst ourselves to thwart propaganda wars thrust upon us. Far beyond the coronavirus illness itself, our survival depends on it.
J.D. Gordon is a former Senior National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to Republicans Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain. Previously, he served as a Pentagon spokesman during the George W. Bush Administration and is a retired Navy Commander.