CSIS accuses Russia, China and Iran of spreading COVID-19 disinformation

Click to play video: 'CSIS says foreign actors engaging in COVID-19 disinformation'
CSIS says foreign actors engaging in COVID-19 disinformation
WATCH: CSIS says foreign actors engaging in COVID-19 disinformation – Dec 3, 2020

A report by Canada’s intelligence service accuses Russia, China and Iran of spreading COVID-19 disinformation to promote their strategic ambitions.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service named the trio of countries in a declassified report titled COVID-19: Global Effects and Canadian National Security Interests.

It said Russia was “actively spreading disinformation blaming the West for the virus,” as part of a broader campaign to discredit the West, promote Russian influence and push for an end to Western sanctions.

China, meanwhile, “is focused on a propaganda campaign that protects its own reputation and domestic legitimacy while touting its pandemic aid abroad,” said the assessment, marked Secret/Canadian Eyes Only.

At the same time, China’s internal restrictions were not being widely reported, and the infection and mortality data released by Beijing was “unreliable,” CSIS wrote.

Story continues below advertisement

For its part, the Iranian regime’s “increased disinformation campaign seeks to shift blame for domestic shortcomings in handling COVID-19 to foreign actors (especially U.S. sanctions).”

COVID-19 misinformation has flourished since the start of the pandemic, fuelling what has been called an “infodemic” of conspiracy theories and falsehoods amid efforts to contain the coronavirus.

Declassified documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act show that CSIS has been monitoring the national security implications of the phenomenon.

“Threat actors have used the pandemic as an opportunity to spread disinformation online,” CSIS spokesman John Townsend said Wednesday when asked about the documents.

“It is important to note that disinformation, originating from anywhere in the world, can have serious consequences including threats to the safety and security of Canadians, erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, and confusion about government policies and notices including information on the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

“State-sponsored disinformation campaigns are an example of foreign interference.”

The Chinese embassy denied spreading COVID-19 disinformation, while the Russian embassy said it would comment after receiving a link to the CSIS statement. Iran has not had an embassy in Canada since the countries broke off diplomatic relations in 2012.

Story continues below advertisement
A CSIS report released to Global News under the Access to Information Act.

Professor Stephanie Carvin said Moscow and Beijing engaged in COVID-19 disinformation for different purposes.

“In the case of Russia, it’s just kind of the continuation of trying to sow discord within Western democracies, whether by amplifying conspiracy theories or by just trying to discredit certain initiatives that governments are doing,” she said.

But China had different objectives, said Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“I think they are predominantly concerned with their international reputation and their perceived failure to be transparent with regards to the pandemic in their own country. And they’ve been asserting that the pandemic may have actually started in other countries like Italy.

“So what we’re really seeing is a variety of actors engaged in this for a number of purposes. And this is, of course, how they normally operate, anyways. It’s just I think because so much global attention is being paid to the pandemic, it’s not surprising that they would latch onto that.”

Story continues below advertisement

The CSIS documents reveal the agency’s Intelligence Assessment Branch, as well as the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, have been preparing regular internal briefings on COVID-19-related issues.

The topics include the exploitation of the pandemic by extremist movements and 5G conspiracy theorists, and the promotion of pandemic disinformation by Canada’s authoritarian adversaries.

Some of the records indicate they were prepared for senior officials in the Privy Council Office, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canadian Heritage, as well as the Deputy Ministers Operations Committee.

Click to play video: 'CSIS links Russia, China and Iran to COVID-19 misinformation'
CSIS links Russia, China and Iran to COVID-19 misinformation

The documents were partly redacted on the grounds they contained information about the prevention of hostile activities. They cover the period between January and May 2020.

Story continues below advertisement

“CSIS is clearly monitoring any updates regarding the pandemic,” said Ahmed al-Rawi, assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University School of Communication.

He said the CSIS documents covered four main areas of interest to the intelligence service: Russia, China, Iran and extremist groups.

“They seem to be concerned about the impact of conspiracy theories on Canadians,” said Al-Rawi, who also runs The Disinformation Project.

Misinformation about COVID-19 has had an impact on behaviour, according to a study conducted by McGill University and University of Toronto researchers, and published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

The study found that misinformation about the virus was associated with less compliance with social distancing, and those most likely to hold misperceptions about the pandemic were more reliant on social media.

But one of the authors of the report, Aengus Bridgman of McGill University, said there was little evidence that disinformation campaigns had any impact, and most misinformation was spread by people engaging politically on the internet.

In March, a COVID-19 conspiracy theory from a Canadian website was posted on Twitter by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson.
In March, a COVID-19 conspiracy theory from a Canadian website was posted on Twitter by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson.

A CSIS report, classified Top Secret, cited the example of a Chinese foreign ministry official who promoted the COVID-19 falsehoods of a Montreal-based conspiracy theory website.

Story continues below advertisement

Although the virus originated in China, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, posted an article on Twitter claiming it was created in a U.S. biological warfare lab.

The online post alleged the pandemic was “a cover operation by the One World Order” to use vaccination to reduce the global population and create “a digital control system,” CSIS wrote.

There is no credible evidence supporting the theory.

The article tweeted by Zhao was from Global Research, which CSIS described as a “Canadian conspiracy publication” that publishes content that portrays Russia’s response to COVID-19 in a positive light while claiming Moscow is the victim of “Western conspiracies.”

According to the CSIS report, the Global Research article tweeted by Zhao was “being exploited as part of a growing alternative narrative that seeks to create doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in China.”

The website did not respond to a request for comment.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: COVID-19 and the fear fueling conspiracy theories'
Coronavirus: COVID-19 and the fear fueling conspiracy theories

The pandemic has “deepened fissures between authoritarian states and Western liberal democracies,” according to another CSIS intelligence assessment, marked Top Secret.

Story continues below advertisement

The pandemic “represents a threat to regime stability” for some states, the assessment said.

“At the same time, adversarial states have used the pandemic as an opportunity to tout themselves as legitimate alternatives to liberal Western democracies, currently straining to deal with the crisis.

“Global strategic competition increasingly is focusing on a race to find a solution and to recalibrate supply chains and other vital mechanisms guaranteeing social and economic stability.”

Last week, the National Cyber Threat Assessment 2020 also singled out Russia, China and Iran, as well as North Korea, saying their state-sponsored cyber programs posed the greatest strategic threat to Canada.

Sponsored content