In mid-September, Marcel Schliebs, a disinformation researcher at the University of Oxford who had been following messages that Chinese diplomats and state media had been broadcasting on Twitter for 18 months, spotted the emergence of a surprising theory. the origin of the coronavirus.
Zha Liyou, the Chinese Consul General in Kolkata, India, tweeted an unfounded claim that Covid-19 could have been imported into China from the United States via a batch of Maine lobsters shipped to a seafood market in Wuhan in November 2019. This marks the latest in a series of theories advanced by pro-Chinese accounts since the start of the pandemic.
Digging deeper, Schliebs discovered a network of over 550 Twitter accounts, which he shared with NBC News, spreading an almost identical message, translated into multiple languages - including English, Spanish, French, Polish. , Korean and even Latin – at a similar level. times a day between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. China Standard Time.
Some of the accounts were “unsophisticated sock puppets” with “very few or no followers,” Schliebs said, while others appeared to be accounts that were once genuine but had been hijacked and reused to broadcast. disinformation.
“Attribution is really difficult,” said Schliebs, postdoctoral researcher in computer propaganda at the Oxford Program on Democracy and Technology. “But we can see that there is a coordinated effort, and that this is a pro-Chinese narrative.”
Articles in Chinese media, shared on social media, have repeatedly suggested that the Covid-19 could come from imports of frozen products. The same diplomat Schliebs noticed that last month, pushing the Maine lobster theory, already tweeted in December the theory that Covid could have arrived in Wuhan from elsewhere via the “cold chain” and called for an investigation more depth on the baseless claim that the U.S. military was involved in the spread of the virus.
“This is the third or fourth major different redirection that Chinese officials have undertaken to try to somehow establish the Covid epidemic over the United States,” Bret Schafer, chief of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is part of the German nonprofit association. Marshall Fund of the United States, said of diplomats disseminating messages reinforced by inauthentic accounts. “It sounds rude and unsophisticated when you look at the individual accounts. But these types of networks are designed to try and keep topics trending on social media. “
“Whether or not someone buys that lobster or Fort Detrick is the source of Covid, it at least has the effect of confusing the truth and confusing people,” he added. (Fort Detrick, MD is home to the U.S. Biological Defense Program.)
Schliebs said he shared a spreadsheet with Twitter of the accounts that appeared to be behaving in an inauthentic manner. The social media platform said it reviewed the accounts and suspended them under its platform manipulation and spam policy.
“Our top priority is to ensure the safety of people and we remain vigilant about the coordinated activity of our service,” said Twitter spokesperson Marco Bilello. “Using both technology and human scrutiny, we proactively and systematically tackle platform manipulation attempts and mitigate them on a large scale by taking action on millions of accounts every week for breach of our policies in this area. “
Twitter is investigating networks of inauthentic accounts to see if it can reliably attribute them to state-related activity, the company said, but this process can take several months. He has yet to link this network to anyone who works for the Chinese government.
Because of how quickly Schliebs’ team identified the network, “the impact in the real world was likely small,” he said. “We alerted Twitter about the network, and they quickly put it on hold just as it was starting to gain traction, as the network was in its growth phase.”
Maine’s lobster industry has been caught in the crossfire of the U.S.-China trade relationship for several years. According to US Census Bureau data, US live lobster exports to China, a major seafood buyer, fell more than 40% in 2019 after China imposed heavy tariffs on US lobsters. during President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. Lobster exports from the United States to China rebounded in 2020 as China eased restrictions on the industry. But some experts are worried about the possibility of future Chinese seafood sanctions.
In November, China restricted the import of Australian lobsters amid a months-long diplomatic and trade dispute. He also informally restricted the import of Norwegian salmon after a Chinese activist was awarded a Nobel Prize.
Some articles pointing to lobsters in Maine refer to a World Health Organization report released in March that SARS-CoV-2 can survive for a long time in frozen and chilled produce and packaging, which provides a “basis scientist for the possibility “that these imports could transmit the virus.
“Public health organizations around the world have said with certainty that imported food is not the cause of Covid-19,” said Tom Adams, owner of Maine Coast, a wholesale lobster supplier from Maine headquartered social has been mentioned in some of the Chinese media articles. . “Maine Coast has no information to support this claim.”
Adams added that the unfounded rumors had not affected his business.
Some articles mistakenly suggest that the cases of lung disease identified by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as caused by e-cigarettes may have been the first cluster of Covid-19 cases.
The Maine CDC said the claims had no scientific basis.
“These allegations appear to establish an unfounded link between people who required treatment for vaping-related lung damage at a hospital in Maine and the fact that lobsters live in the waters near this hospital,” he said. said Robert Long, spokesperson for Maine CDC. “It’s a good load of cod.”
Kai Yan, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the UK, said China was “opposed to the fabrication and dissemination of disinformation.”
“China is the biggest victim of disinformation, and the perpetrators are politicians and media eager to denigrate China in the United States and a few other Western countries,” Yan said.
Yan added that China urges “all members of the international community to work together to oppose and resist such disinformation, which will inevitably disrupt global cooperation in the fight against the pandemic.”
Despite the early identification and suspension of accounts, the same theory is still spreading on Twitter, Schliebs said.
“We’ve slowed it down considerably, but we’re still seeing coordinated efforts to get the message out,” Schliebs said. “It appears that accounts are being created now to replace those deleted in response to our investigation. “