Chinese agents spread coronavirus misinformation in the U.S. in mid-March, around the time that various states were implementing business and school closures, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
U.S. officials believe the Chinese operatives spread already-existing misinformation about the coronavirus through fake social media accounts, borrowing tactics from the Kremlin’s online trolls, but also via text messages, which many Americans then shared with their networks.
One fake text message cited the Department of Homeland Security as saying the Trump administration would impose a lockdown “as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters.” The National Security Council was forced to publicly deny the content of the message after it spread widely.
The messages were alarming to U.S. agencies because they had not seen misinformation spread via text on such a large scale.
One senior American official said agencies were looking into whether Chinese spies in diplomatic missions in the U.S. were involved in spreading the misinformation. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic the U.S. had tightened restrictions on Chinese state media organizations and diplomats.
The revelations come at a time of heightened tension between China and the U.S. after China failed to contain the original outbreak of coronavirus in the city of Wuhan. The illness has since spread across the globe, infecting over 825,000 patients and killing 45,000 in the U.S. as of Wednesday morning.
U.S. lawmakers and officials have charged that China has covered up the spread of coronavirus within its own borders.