One of China’s top spokesmen has led an army of Chinese officials on Twitter elevating conspiracy theories suggesting the United States military started the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent study.
Zhao Lijian was one of the first Chinese officials on Twitter to push a theory suggesting the virus originated at a U.S. Army base that houses and researches infectious diseases, according to data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The theory accelerated after Chinese embassy accounts in France and Jordan retweeted Zhao’s post, the data show.
The Chinese accounts “have become more aggressive, more conspiratorial, and the ones who have done that are their most popular accounts and have by far the most engagement,” Bret Schafer, the digital disinformation fellow at the alliance, told NBC News. Schafer’s group created the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to aggregate Chinese and Russian Twitter accounts.
China has posted 90,000 tweets mentioning the pandemic since the beginning of April from 200 diplomatic and state-run media accounts, data from the dashboard shows. Schafer’s analysis also shows that Twitter content from Chinese accounts doubled since January. (RELATED: Twitter Won’t Remove Chinese Official’s Tweet Suggesting US Army Introduced Virus Into Wuhan)
Zhao, the spokesman and deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, tweeted in early March that, “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” He also falsely suggested in the tweet that Centers For Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield was “arrested.”
He doubled down the next day, telling his Twitter followers on March 13: “Further evidence that the virus originated in the US,” before linking to a blog post suggesting the virus leaked from Fort Detrick, a U.S. military base that houses a facility where researchers research infectious diseases. This tweet has been retweeted more than 12,600 times and liked 20,000 times.
Other Chinese accounts followed his lead. Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said in a May 8 tweet that Fort Detrick should be investigated. Nine other Chinese accounts picked up the tweet in the days that followed, according to Schafer, including Zhao’s account.
Twitter has not removed Hua and Zhao’s tweets, and a company spokeswoman previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the tweets do not violate company policy, but they can be subject to a new policy that applies labels warning users that the content is misinformation.
The first case of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is believed to have appeared in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, before spreading since February to more than 40 countries and territories and has a global death toll of 315,000. World leaders want answers.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, is among a handful of world leaders pushing China and other nations to join the probe into the virus to help prevent future outbreaks.
“I think this is for all of us important, I mean for the whole world it is important,” von der Leyen told CNBC during a May 1 interview.
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