U.S. officials say thousands of Russian-linked accounts on social media have been posting “almost near identical” messages about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French — all echoing narratives on state-run media. These stories mostly target the West, alleging, for example, that the virus was forged in a U.S. lab to be unleashed on the Chinese people. Bill Gates and George Soros, in some tellings, were in on the plot.
The lies could breed geopolitical discord, and they could also sow doubt in developing nations about the response to the outbreak. In Ukraine, a fake Ministry of Health email sent from outside the country provoked protesters to smash the windows of buses filled with evacuees from China and burn barricades.
The Chinese have a different problem. Officials are using their ability to monitor WeChat accounts even outside the country to censor expatriates who share articles critical of President Xi Jinping’s response. One entrepreneur living in San Francisco tried to share information with his family that he thought the regime might be suppressing. Suddenly he began receiving messages from friends asking for his precise location and exhorting him to head back home — messages that were coerced, he believes, by authorities.
Back within China’s borders, one citizen told Vice that agents from the Ministry of State Security knocked on his door after he sent a tweet that the agents alleged “attacks the Communist Party of China.” He was forced to sign a “promise note” not to repeat the “threat.” NPR reports that a resident of the coastal city of Wenzhou had her WeChat account suspended when she spoke of a lack of face masks. Wuhan residents desperate for treatment and supplies are also being silenced. Officials have instructed Internet companies to “conduct special supervision,” and authorities are filling the void with their own rosier descriptions of rapid responses and bravery on the front lines.
China and Russia are modeling the go-to responses authoritarian regimes have adopted in the digital age for robbing the Web of its democratizing power. A government can try to persuade its citizens to believe only what it wants them to, or it can try to persuade them to believe nothing at all. Either tactic, with stakes as high as they are today, could get people killed.