One conspiracy theory suggests the U.S. military was behind the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China and led to lockdowns and self-isolation across nearly every continent.
Another wild claim argues 5G technology is helping to spread the new coronavirus worldwide.
Both of these ideas stem from disinformation campaigns planted on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter by “state actors” linked to countries including Russia and China, according to experts.
And as far-fetched as the ideas sound, in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic threat, they could succeed in eroding democratic institutions and boosting influence for authoritarian states, the experts warned.
“The 5G COVID-19 theory looks like Russia has started it, and now it is being pushed by the MAGA bots,” said Stephanie Carvin, a Carleton University professor and former national security analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“But I am more worried by the bioweapon theory. The overarching goal of any conspiracy theory is that you undermine trust in public institutions. And in this case, during a pandemic, it could produce real harm.”
Carvin was asked by Global News to comment on her ongoing monitoring of online disinformation campaigns and also the findings of a new study regarding COVID-19 disinformation campaigns by Datametrex, a social media analytics firm.
Datametrex studied over five million social media posts from March, looking for the sources and facilitators of conspiracy theories that have spread through social media and messaging apps like Twitter and WhatsApp.
The firm looked at whether so-called “bot hordes” controlled by authoritarian states are responsible for spreading pandemic conspiracy narratives through machine-controlled accounts. But they found it was actually well-known Chinese government officials — with limited but effective tweets — who successfully launched Russian-designed propaganda into western social media discussions.
Russian state media and online accounts first promoted the theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 originated from a United States bioweapon in February, Datametrex found.
But when Chinese diplomats tweeted or retweeted an article about the theory, it took off.
Most powerful of the nine tweets, according to Datametrex, was a tweet linking to a Global Research story from Lijian Zhao, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman with over 500,000 Twitter followers.
“This article is very much important to each and everyone of us,” Zhao’s tweet said. “Please read and retweet it.
“The narrative shift of the conspiracy on English Twitter begins with a tweet on March 12th by Chinese official, Lijian Zhao, pushing a link to a pro-conspiracy article in globalresearch.ca, a site that previous NATO research has linked to Russian propaganda efforts,” the Datametrex report says.
According to Datametrex, select Chinese embassies and ambassadors around the world co-ordinated to retweet Zhao’s first tweet on March 12 “(as an) act of information warfare.”
Zhao’s tweet was retweeted thousands of times, including by Chinese ambassadors to Egypt and Botswana, and Chinese embassies in Panama and Manila, Philippines.
Zachary Devereaux of Datametrex said both Russia and China wanted to shift blame for the pandemic onto the U.S.
“There are always conspiracy theories around major events such as pandemics, and COVID-19 is no exception. What the Chinese diplomats did is to encourage a particular conspiracy theory that shifted blame away from China, and that effort has been successful,” Devereaux said.
“Now the theory is out there on social media, and the consequences of this could be significant. If the citizens of countries like India and China believe it, it could lead to major changes for international politics, business and foreign nationals living abroad.”
Global Research has not yet responded to a request for comment from Global News.
In an interview, Carvin said Global Research is known in western intelligence as one of the websites believed to be involved in “laundering” Russian disinformation.
“Whether it is wittingly or unwittingly, Global Research are laundering the kinds of narratives that Russia-linked actors and institutions are pushing,” Carvin said. “So you have ‘black campaigns’ from bots or troll farms connected to Russia. And then Global Research launders it to look like a legitimate source.”
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Russian state actors have evidently been pushing “a lot of anti-5G theories before the coronavirus,” with some success because the theories have “played well to the anti-vax crowd,” Carvin said.
Since 5G technology is viewed as crucial to emerging businesses and state security, it is possible that Russia disinformation aims to delay the rollout of this technology in western nations, Carvin said. And now these theories appear to have been adapted to play on uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus, she said.
The theories generally argue that radiation from 5G technology has a damaging impact on the human immune system, according to an explanation from Cornell University’s Alliance for Science blog.
“If enough people start to believe that COVID-19 is not a real virus, they will stop trusting scientific authorities and governments trying to curb the pandemic,” the Cornell University blog report says. “They may even contribute to its spread if they cease obeying social distancing and quarantine measures.”
As an example, one recent 5G conspiracy tweet from an account linked to prevalent conspiracy theories suggests that diseases have coincided with a number of cellular technology advances.
The Cornell University blog post notes that already a number of 5G towers in the United Kingdom have been vandalized in attacks that some believe are related to the 5G COVID-19 theories.
In response to questions from Global News for this story, Ryan Foreman of the CSE, Canada’s cybersecurity agency, said the agency is using its mandated powers in cybersecurity and foreign intelligence to protect Canadians from “opportunistic cyber threat actors attempting to take advantage of Canadians’ heightened levels of concern and legitimate fears around COVID-19 to spread misinformation.”
“To be clear, 5G technology is in no conceivable way connected to the spread of COVID 19,” Foreman said. “During crises, such as the COVID-19 situation, conspiracy and other unfounded, unhelpful theories are bound to emerge.”
Pandemic ‘displaces mental resources’
Ross Otto, a professor of psychology at McGill University, is studying the extraordinary mental conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He said it is possible that fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 virus is impairing critical thinking ability, and this may have consequences for the spread of wild stories about the virus.
“The impact on people that we are now studying is that all these conditions — an anxious and fearful state or ruminating excessively about personal risk — can impair cognitive function,” Otto said. “Worrying displaces the mental resources that you could normally be using.”
Otto said he and colleagues in other cities are gathering data to test whether citizens living in COVID-19 epicentres such as Montreal or New York could be suffering greater cognitive impairment than people living in isolated areas with very few COVID-19 infections.
“I have colleagues from the U.S. who have family members that believe that, to some extent, this virus is a manufactured thing,” Otto said. “You can see how that is the sort of story that could spread pretty easily.”