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Chinese agents spread coronavirus misinformation that sowed panic, US intelligence officials say


US officials said they had never seen this level of disinformation on text messages before.

Xinhua/Ju Peng

Chinese agents spread misinformation last month about the coronavirus in the United States, which stoked fears, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Chinese operatives engaged in a campaign to amplify COVID-19 misinformation messages in mid-March, according to a report in the New York Times. The disinformation offensive was so effective that the White House National Security Council was forced to issue an announcement decrying the messages as "fake."

Six anonymous U.S. intelligence officials from six separate agencies told the Times that Chinese agents spread fake news that a national lockdown was imminent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The hoax messages falsely stated that President Donald Trump was going to order a two-week nationwide mandatory quarantine, and advised to "stock up on whatever you guys need." The message said to "please forward" the false news.

Another false message cited the Department of Homeland Security as saying the Trump administration would impose a national lockdown "as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters."

U.S. officials claim that the Chinese agents spread the fake news through text messages and encrypted messaging apps, including WhatsApp, which are more difficult to track down by law enforcement than social media platforms. The officials said that the Chinese operatives created fake social media accounts to promote the phony messages, a strategy most-notably carried out by Russia-backed trolls leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The hoax messages appeared on social media feeds and cellphones of millions of Americans. The officials said they had never seen this level of disinformation dissemination on SMS before.

The misinformation campaign had gotten so widespread that the National Security Council issued an announcement to prevent panic from the fake messages. The NSC wrote a tweet on March 15, stressing that there was no impending national quarantine or national lockdown.

Two U.S. officials noted that they did not believe Chinese agents created the message, but only amplified the misinformation. The officials did not specify the origin of the initial fake messages.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that China was involved in the coronavirus disinformation campaign.

"The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting," China told the Times.

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