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DOD Works to Eliminate Foreign Coronavirus Disinformation

April 13, 2020 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

Under the rubric of "not wasting a good crisis," Russia, China and others are using the coronavirus pandemic to spread disinformation to further their goals, Pentagon officials said.

The Defense Department is working with the State Department, allies, partners and other agencies to curb this trend, Pentagon officials said in a telephone briefing for reporters last week.

"We've seen increasing unity of effort in response to COVID, both within Western democracies, but also across allies and partners, to include terrific sharing of medical lessons learned," said Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

Cooper specifically pointed out instances where the Russian government sought to sow disinformation in the West. 

Soldier takes temperature of woman at airport.
Passenger Screen
Hawaii National Guardsmen medically screen passengers departing from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, April 7, 2020. The soldiers began assisting with screening 100 percent of arriving and departing passengers and will continue to assist throughout the COVID-19 response.
Photo By: Army Sgt. John Schoebel
VIRIN: 200407-Z-SV327-004

"I think the most pernicious disinformation that we have to contend with is the disinformation that is sowing global … mistrust and confusion," she said. "These are messages that are endangering global health because they're undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public."

An example of this disinformation came to light in March, when Russia Today and Sputnik broadcast that hand-washing was ineffective against coronavirus. Another "alternative news source" in Russia reported that there was no pandemic and that the deaths in Italy were the common flu, she said. 

In early January, Russian news outlets broadcast that they had discovered a cure: They hadn't. Further, they stated that it was really U.S. pharmaceutical companies that were spreading rumors about the virus to drum up business. It wasn't, Cooper said. 

"You can see how they could cause individual citizens to act in ways that contradict good advice that they are being given by public health officials," Cooper said.

Airmen board a plane.
Medical Tech
Medical technicians in the 433rd Airlift Wing mobilize and depart Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Samantha Mathison
VIRIN: 200405-F-FS041-1144C

While Russia may be the most egregious culprit, China is also involved in the disinformation process, Chad Sbragia, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters. "In terms of specific disinformation campaigns, the one … that [I] was most concerned  with … was the false accusation that COVID-19 began with a U.S. Army service member bringing that to China somehow," he said. "That was just patently false and, frankly, unhelpful. It's those kind of activities that we see that are just not what the global environment community needs at this time."

Given that the virus first appeared in China and that Chinese medical professionals had first-hand experience in how to combat COVID, the United States was disappointed with the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda and disinformation campaign effort to shift responsibility of the pandemic to others — "which was unfounded, futile and really counterproductive," Sbargia said.

Iran has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and the Iranian government has also spread disinformation, saying the United States was responsible for the virus. 

"We're seeing a variety of actors around the world who are using COVID-19 to target or blame Western allies, or the United States in particular," Cooper said. "And I really think … of it as a global disinformation ecosystem where a news item that generates in one part of the world then gets amplified and picked up elsewhere."

Service members wearing face masks hold signs that read “#MassLOve” and “#In This Together.”
Mass Love
Air Force Airman Stephen Jeffers and Army Spc. Nicholas Navarro, both Massachusetts National Guardsmen, respond to help their communities during the COVID-19 response. Security Forces from the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass., and the 747th Military Police Company are providing 24-hour security for testing sites and shelters for the homeless who may be positive COVID-19.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey
VIRIN: 200411-Z-UF872-0039C

U.S. officials have been exposing this disinformation, Cooper said. "We're calling on all countries — Russia included — to rein in malign actors that are spreading misleading, disruptive information about the virus," he added.