Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been trying to promote a narrative that the virus originated somewhere outside of mainland China. One recent conspiracy theory being spread by CCP propagandists is that the coronavirus was imported to China from the United States. The culprit is a batch of Maine lobsters that was sent to Wuhan in November 2019.
The misinformation ploy was first noted by Marcel Schliebs, disinformation researcher at the University of Oxford in mid-September. He has been tracking Twitter posts from Chinese media and diplomats for the previous 18 months. He found a network of 550 Twitter accounts that were promoting the narrative in multiple languages.
While some of these Twitter accounts used to be authentic and were later possibly repurposed for spreading misinformation, many other accounts were “unsophisticated sock puppets” that had little to no followers. Schliebs found it difficult attributing the campaign to any particular group. But he notes that the accounts consistently promoted a “pro-China” narrative.
“We notified Twitter last week, and they were very responsive and suspended the accounts very rapidly within a few hours. Fortunately, we detected the campaign as it was still in its early growth phase and before it could really start to reach and impact real genuine audiences,” Schliebs told USA TODAY.
Last January, Beijing promoted propaganda that the COVID-19 virus originated from a U.S. military lab in Fort Derrick. Hua Chunying, the director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China, promoted the narrative heavily on Twitter and even demanded that Washington open up Fort Derrick for investigation. In July, the foreign ministry asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the issue.
Bret Schafer, head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, commented about the latest Maine lobster conspiracy. He said that this is the “third or fourth major redirection” that Chinese officials have undertaken to pin the blame of COVID-19 on the United States.
“It looks crude and not sophisticated when you look at individual accounts. But these kinds of networks are designed to try and get topics to trend on social media… Whether or not anyone is buying into lobster or Fort Detrick being the source of Covid, it’s at least having the effect of muddying the truth and confusing people,” Schafer told NBC News.
In September, cybersecurity firm Mandiant in association with experts from Google had published a report revealing that a pro-Chinese online influence operation was targeting Americans to exploit divisions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The operation had initially focused on discrediting the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; later it began to focus on other issues. According to the report, accounts in the influence operation have worked to mobilize protestors in the United States to respond against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This direct call for physical mobilization is a significant development compared to prior activity, potentially indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories… While this attempt did not appear to achieve any success, we believe it is critical that observers continue to monitor for such attempts in case greater degrees of organic engagement are later realized by the network,” the report states.