U.S. Defense Department officials on Thursday outlined foreign attempts -- particularly by Russia -- to spread disinformation on the novel coronavirus, such as recent claims that handwashing doesn't prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
The Pentagon and other agencies in the U.S. government routinely work to counter false news stories and social media posts from foreign governments seeking to influence public opinion. It has been no different with COVID-19, officials said.
In March, China claimed that the U.S. was responsible for the virus. But Russia has been particularly prolific about spreading coronavirus disinformation to sow global mistrust and confusion, Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told defense reporters during a call-in roundtable.
"These are messages that are endangering global health because they are undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and organizations that are responsible for disseminating information about the virus to the public," she said. "As recently as late March ... we have seen articles that handwashing is ineffective."
In mid-March, Russian-backed, English-language websites were reporting "that there actually was no pandemic and that some deaths in Italy may have been caused by the common flu," Cooper said.
"In early January, we saw reports on several different Russian news sites claiming ... it was really just Big Pharma in the United States spreading rumors about the virus in order to drum up business," she added, referring to the pharmaceutical industry. "The thing with all of these various messages is you can see how they could cause individual citizens to act in ways that contradict advice that they are being given by public health officials."
Aside from Russia, there are a variety of actors around the world that are blaming COVID-19 on the United States in particular, Cooper said. "We saw this with a claim in January that the U.S. was behind COVID-19, that it was a weapon."
The Chinese government made the "false accusation that COVID-19 began with a U.S. Army service member bringing that to China somehow," Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters.
"We were very clear that this was unhelpful; this is moving the coronavirus out of an area of cooperation between the two militaries and into an area of confrontation. ... We communicated what our expectations were and they should retract that," he added.
The Chinese government was quick to reverse its stance on the issue, Sbragia said.
"They have since backed away from that narrative, and we have not seen ... that in authoritative commentary or narratives from the Chinese since then," he said. "If you take note of what their most recent Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements reflect, [it] is they don't have an official position on the origins of that and will leave that to the scientific community to determine that over time."
Cooper said these kinds of claims have also come out of Russia and Iran, as they tried to convince the public that the U.S. was "purposely spreading COVID-19," Cooper said.
One way the U.S. has tried to combat these campaigns is to call on all countries, Russia included, to rein in malign actors spreading disinformation about the virus, she added.
"You can't treat it like an old-fashion whack-a-mole ... and try to dispute every single piece of information, especially on COVID-19; there [are] so many," Cooper said. The best course is to expose the most egregious claims but also focus on educating the public on the truth, she explained.
"And just transparency in general -- the fact that you have so many briefings that are happening just within the [DoD] at the Pentagon ... this transparency on the DoD effort, not to mention the whole-of-government effort, that is really the most important aspect of countering disinformation, when it comes to the public health perspective," Cooper said.
"It really isn't about getting bogged down on what kind of disinformation is coming out of China, but highlighting the strength and unity of the global system that we all benefit from," he said.
The Chinese military has since taken steps to cooperate with its U.S. military counterparts and made commitments to treat "this as an area of cooperation in terms of battling the COVID-19 pandemic," Sbragia said.
"It is critically important that they have done so, and it was certainly welcomed and reciprocated by the department here," he said. "Our militaries must remain committed to seeking cooperation over confrontation in this pandemic so that the world can recover and prosper."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.