Lessons From the Pandemic: Why Global Powers Spread Conspiracies

Following the Coronavirus pandemic related conspiracy theories emerged. Global powers began shaping the pandemic narrative, fending off blame and associating it with others. Some did it for domestic control, others to undermine their global adversaries.

Lev Topor
September 10, 2020

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. Medical experts linked the virus to a live animal market in Wuhan. Interestingly, today, the only undisputed fact is the outbreak location - Wuhan. Other information such as timelines, infections, death rates and origin are unreliable or debatable as different forces, mainly global powers, manipulate and shape the pandemic narrative for their own strategic purposes.

“global battle of narratives” is taking place. International actors exploit the crisis for their own domestic and international goals. Global powers associate the virus with their adversaries; while accusing each other of mismanagement, slow reaction, hiding facts, and the spread of ‘fake news.’ For example, following American criticism and pressure over the slow Chinese reaction, Beijing denied the virus originated in China and blamed the US for unnecessary restrictions and even suggested that the virus originated from the US. Others, like Russia and China, not wishing to waste a good crisis, try to spread chaos in Europe and the Middle East, attempting to distance countries from the West.

As globalization slowed down, and countries closed their borders, and paused their economies, citizens and political figures began searching for a scapegoat. Some perceived China as a perpetrator, some as a victim. Some, mainly progressive and liberal democracies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and the US (at least in the beginning) did not target any foreign power but perceived the pandemic as a case of force majeure – something extraordinary and unexpected, associated with natural or divine power.

Less liberal or less-democratic countries associated the pandemic with their global adversaries, as seen in IranTurkey or ChinaThis reflects the basic division between liberal and non-liberal international players – The first seek to serve while the latter seek to rule. For instance, numerous reports on Middle Eastern media accused the US (and Israel) for the creation and spread of the virus as part of an economic and psychological war against China.

In Turkey and Iran, officials and other public figures accused Israel and the US of population dilution “This virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing”, the head of Turkey’s Refah party said. On Turkish television, Abdullah Bozkurt drew attention to a guest appearing on the A-Haber TV station, owned by Turkish President Erdogan, saying that, “Jews, Zionists have organized & engineered #Corona virus as biological weapon just like bird flu & Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). They want to design the world, seize countries, neuter the world’s population.”

Russia also joined the information warfare, and exploited the virus for its own strategic benefits. Moscow disseminated Coronavirus related mis/disinformation in the West, ex-Soviet states and in the Middle East, in an attempt to spread chaos so as to distance countries from the West and bring them closer to Moscow. For instance, Moscow has amplified false Chinese arguments that the virus was created by the US military and online articles that said Russia’s medical assistance could bring a new détente with Washington. Russia is now working to centralize its domestic power against possible foreign interventions and propaganda.

Moreover, taking advantage of the crisis, China, Russia and Iran coordinated their disinformation campaigns in an attempt to blame and shame the West over the pandemic. Each of the trio has its own strategic goals. Russia and China both seek to downgrade Western influence on their borders. China’s fast shipping of medical supplies and humanitarian aid aims to create a positive image of China while downgrading the West. Iran joined China and Russia in spreading propaganda in an attempt to lift  brutal sanctions placed on them, which as claimed by Iranian officials, prevent proper healthcare and lead to more fatalities in the pandemic.

In response to the coordinated propaganda campaign, the US launched a communications campaign to block the accusations and blame China for the disinformation and the delayed, non-transparent response to the virus. The counterstrategy also pushed US officials into highlighting China's disinformation campaign. US President Donald Trump sparked anger with Chinese officials in March, calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus” in an attempt to stigmatize China. Following the campaign, China’s foreign minister accused the US of spreading conspiracies and lies about China.

So, Why do Global Powers Spread Mis/Disinformation?

There are several types of information and conspiracies regarding the Coronavirus pandemic; the origin, hidden political agendas of adversaries, and medical information. Each type is used in both global and domestic politics. When examining information, one must assess the information's core argument and probable reason for the it. The outbreak produced several negative results; a global pandemic, social isolation, governmental restrictions and a crashing global economy. These results cause tremendous social stress, anxiety, and helplessness, explaining why people believe COVID conspiracies and different information.

The table below presents the logical and probable reasons for the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories by global forces in a clear and bold manner. Yet, the reality is much more complex.

Cross Field Disinformation Purposes – Why Global Forces Spread Conspiracies

To conclude and exemplify the point, China’s disinformation campaigns include many of the goals described in the table. Other international players also act according to these goals. Immediately after the outbreak, China diverted the origin of the virus from itself, as well as the agenda and even some aspects related to medical information.

On the domestic level of information (and disinformation) spread, Chinese social media censors blocked neutral information about the outbreak, when hundreds of keywords and keyword combinations, including “Wuhan seafood market” and “SARS variation” were censored in late December 2019. Simultaneously, the Chinese Communist Party (CP) began spreading positive stories about its handling of the pandemic. These actions were aimed at diverting public pressure and criticism from the Chinese CP elsewhere, presumably towards the West. As stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “The source of infection of the virus remains unknown”. Control over Coronavirus information effectively restricts Chinese citizens and gives the CP tremendous control and power.

On the international level of information (and disinformation) campaigns, China pushed disinformation messages about the origin of the virus, hidden global agendas and even about medical information. For instance, Chinese media and officials promoted theories suggesting that the American Army was responsible for introducing the disease while visiting Wuhan in October 2019 - This shifted the perception of origin away from China.

As for medical information, disinformation in terms of local and international medical instructions created public disobedience (such as quarantine evasion), enhanced tension and distrust between law enforcement and society, and generated chaos. This mis/disinformation is constantly being spread, not only by China but by most global powers. All in all, both domestic and international mis/disinformation campaigns by international actors are aimed to create sympathy for the distributors and antipathy for their adversaries.

Dr. Lev Topor is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Cyber Law and Policy at the University of Haifa, Israel and the Executive Director of the cyber and business research firm OTB Intelligence Ltd.