‘Data Void’: How Chinese State Media Uses Fort Detrick to Spread COVID-19 Disinformation Online

By Ryan Wu | October 19, 2021
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FREDERICK, MD - AUG. 01: A sign at the Veterans Gate at Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is shown August 1, 2008 in Frederick, Maryland. Chinese state media and officials have published more than 1,000 tweets, articles, and videos about Fort Detrick since May (Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

According to a new investigative report, Chinese government officials and state media are exploiting loopholes in major search engines such as Google, YouTube, and Bing to push pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conspiracy theories about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. 

According to The Alliance for Securing Democracy, the communist propaganda machine has focused on claims that the novel coronavirus did not originate in Wuhan, the city in central China where the first cases appeared, but at a laboratory in the U.S. military base of Fort Detrick, Maryland. 

The report, released Oct. 5, found that Chinese state media and officials have published more than 1,000 tweets, articles, and videos about Fort Detrick since May. The report’s authors, Elen Aghekyan, a junior researcher with the coalition, and Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation researcher, noted the elaborate means the CCP uses to spread the bogus conspiracies. 

According to the two researchers, CCP actors exploit online information channels by spreading misleading content on issues where reliable information is lacking. When users type “Fort Detrick” into Google or Bing, they are more likely to find conspiracy theories deliberately spread by Beijing’s propaganda apparatus. 

SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, and spread around the world following an extensive coverup by the CCP. Millions have died in the resulting pandemic. 

The researchers found that queries for military bases on various search engines have shown this trend in recent months — something the researchers refer to as a “data blank.” The report says China’s “data blank” is being “weaponized” to promote unfounded conspiracies.

According to the report, since May, news search results for “Fort Detrick” on Google, YouTube, and Bing have been dominated at various times by Chinese state-run media such as CGTN and the Global Times. The researchers called these media outlets “central to Beijing’s information operations.

Example queries in the report represented only a tiny fraction of the total searches for coronavirus-related information on Google and CCP-created disinformation about the virus. Google spokeswoman Lara Levin, as quoted by the Washington Post, emphasized that the “data void” issue “is a known challenge.” Google, which owns YouTube, says it is working hard to resolve such issues. Microsoft, owner of Bing, declined to comment.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is a cross-party, transatlantic national security advocacy group founded in July 2017 with the stated goal of combating the undermining of U.S. and European democratic institutions by authoritarian states. With staff in Washington, D.C., and Brussels, the coalition covers disinformation, pernicious finance, emerging technologies, election integrity, economic coercion, cybersecurity. Its experts specialize in Russia, China, and the Middle East.