New report traces the history of conspiracy theories claiming COVID-19 is a bioweapon

Nine-month research collaboration by the DFRLab and AP analyzes how narratives propagated in Russia, the U.S., China and Iran

@DFRLab
DFRLab

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Closeup of network graph analyzing more than 400,000 tweets referencing COVID-related bioweapon narratives in English. (Source: DFRLab)

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In December 2019, a previously unknown virus started to infect the population in Wuhan Province, China. The spread of this novel coronavirus would subsequently become not only one of the deadliest pandemics in modern history, but also a dominating flashpoint in the global competition for information among nations, with competing narratives reflective of competing political systems. Particularly in the period immediately following COVID-19’s initial spread, factual information about the disease, its origin, and its symptoms was lacking or withheld — most notably by China — providing the ample space for misleading and malicious information to take root.

Among the many rumors widely circulating around the globe in early 2020 were claims that the virus was engineered as a potential bioweapon. Some versions of this conspiracy theory posited that it was intentionally released on an unsuspecting public. This genre of misleading narrative about a grave issue of national security was utilized predominantly by a range of actors for domestic purposes sometimes at the expense of the type accurate information necessary to an international response to a global public health crisis.

As part of a nine-month joint research project by the DFRLab and the Associated Press, this report examines the information environments of four countries — China, the United States, Russia, and Iran — during the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak and the false narratives that took hold there. The report focuses on how varying, unverified, and outright false narratives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab accident spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives.

One version of this narrative, for example — that it was a biological weapon released from a lab in China — gained particular popularity in the United States. Speculation about the source of the virus moved from unverified social media accounts and conspiracy theory outlets to government officials, political influencers, and others, often leading to further rounds of speculation across the information ecosystem. Some of these narratives were outright false, while others constituted legitimate, but unverified concerns regarding the possibility of the virus being accidentally released from a Chinese lab. There was also much domestic pushback against these narratives, given the open and democratic nature of the US and its information space.

Yet these were by no means the only narratives taking root, as China aggressively deployed an outright false narrative of its own blaming the US Army for the outbreak, while Kremlin media put forward multiple competing disinformation that the US developed the virus and weaponized it to target China. Iran, in turn, embraced a similar false narrative, with claims it was being intentionally targeted by the virus. The false bioweapons narratives in the authoritarian countries were more potent given the tightly controlled information environments, state amplification with very few or no dissenting officials, and lack of independent checks on accountability like a free press.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized relatively early in the crisis that the pandemic presented potential informational dangers and that mis- and disinformation were spreading quickly. On February 2, 2020, the WHO released a COVID-19 situation report that described the pandemic as featuring a parallel infodemic: “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

The use of the term was particularly apt, given the viral nature of information itself.

Multiple narratives claiming the spread of COVID-19 was intentional played directly into this infodemic, riding an international wave of fear and suspicion as the disease spread. The fact that there were competing and conflicting narratives originating from different countries, as well as official and non-official sources, added to the informational chaos circulating on social media, traditional media, and public discourse in general.

And while false bioweapons narratives covered a range of goals, they each had real-world consequences. For each nation, the first priority was addressing domestic audiences, though how this was expressed would depend on the nature of their political systems. In China, Russia and Iran, maintaining public order, controlling domestic messaging, and preventing dissent took precedent. In the US, elected political leaders responded to the public health crisis while simultaneously taking into account the desires of their political base, the latter sometimes overtaking the former. In all four cases, understanding the global spread of false or misleading COVID-19 narratives must first be viewed through each nation’s domestic lens.

Precious time that could have been spent engaging in multilateral cooperation and sharing factual, science-based advice to a worried public was lost as countries played a global blame-game without any evidence to back up their accusations . Claims made by individual online political influencers, often framed for domestic audiences, magnified claims that angered adversaries, hardening over time and making it difficult for nations to back down and flatten the curve of heated rhetoric. The competing theories contributed to the loss of public trust, making it all the more difficult for health officials to enforce sound policies.

Given the earliest reports of the virus came from China, that country was central to narratives that it was a bioweapon either developed by or, conversely, targeting the country. The Chinese approach to information control around the virus followed closely its philosophy of discourse power. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) silenced domestic voices reporting on the disease through harsh information control, including imprisonment of journalists, doctors, and public health officials. Beyond its borders, China initially preferred to boost international perception in its favor by amplifying stories about its benevolence in assisting other countries to combat the virus. As the disease persisted, however, China began to push narratives that painted its geopolitical competitors in a negative light, including pushing conspiracies such as the idea that COVID-19 was a US biological weapon.

In the United States, government officials, including then-President Donald Trump, made the converse claim implying the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, even postulating that its release could have been intentional. The language deployed in support of this narrative by some political influencers often followed a pattern of intentional insinuation, which posited at best unverified information, which was then twisted into disinformation when further amplified, offering the original source an unhelpful amount of plausible deniability. These narratives also had a xenophobic tinge, spreading readily among conspiracy theory and fringe websites. It remained in frequent use as a means of criticizing China, with President Trump deploying versions of it until his final day in office. Conversely, the xenophobia was opportunistically amplified by US rivals to color the entire country as racist or unwelcoming. The cumulative effect of this was to distract the US public’s attention away from the federal government’s disjointed approach to mitigating the virus and point the blame at China.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran used demonstrably false narratives about the disease as a means of furthering their geopolitical agendas, pushing anti-US narratives regardless of veracity. In Russia, where some of the very first narratives emerged, the efforts appeared to be less organized than prior efforts of malign influence directed at the United States but still attempted to sow chaos and distrust of the US government.

In Iran, messaging generally targeted its domestic audiences as the political situation in the country was already fraught. Mass protests against gas prices, the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, and the accidental shoot-down of a commercial jet left the entire Iranian population on edge, only to be exacerbated by an early outbreak of the virus. The regime’s messaging of external threats to the country — especially the United States — was frequently used as a means of renewing the Iranian public’s fidelity to the regime.

Whether an attempt to bolster international standing, rally domestic support by deflecting blame, put adversaries on the defensive, or simply to sow informational chaos, the convoluted narratives that emerged about COVID-19’s origins ultimately served no one’s interests when it came to actually fighting the pandemic. A virus respects neither national interests nor borders.

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Special thanks to Erika Kinetz, Ron Nixon, Karen Mahabir, and the entire AP global investigations team for partnering with the DFRLab for this project.

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@DFRLab
DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.