US Conducted Covert Anti-Vaccine Campaign to Undermine China’s COVID-19 Response: Report

US Conducted Covert Anti-Vaccine Campaign to Undermine China's COVID-19 Response: Report
X has removed profiles determining they were part of a coordinated bot campaign after the news agency flagged them [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

According to a Reuters investigation, the US military launched a clandestine operation during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak to thwart China’s growing influence in the Philippines, which was badly impacted by the virus.

In order to imitate Filipinos, the military used phony online profiles as part of a propaganda effort that ultimately turned into an anti-vaccination movement. These social media profiles berated the face masks, test kits, and China’s Sinovac—the first vaccination made available in the Philippines—for their poor quality. The campaign’s goal was to erode public confidence in medical equipment supplied by the Chinese.

Unreported until now, a covert operation aimed to raise questions about the efficacy and safety of Chinese-supplied vaccines and other vital help. At least 300 profiles on X (previously Twitter) that matched the characteristics provided by former US military officials involved in the operation were found by Reuters. The hashtag #Chinaangvirus, which means “China is the virus” in Tagalog, was prominently displayed on the majority of these accounts, which were created in the middle of 2020.

Posts along the lines of “COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don’t trust China!” were common from these accounts. syringe pictures, Chinese flags, and infection rate graphs accompanying the text. “From China-PPE, Face Mask, Vaccine: FAKE,” read a different message. The coronavirus, however, is real.” X deleted these accounts after Reuters enquired about them, claiming that they were a part of a planned bot effort.

The anti-vaccination effort by the US military started in the spring of 2020, spread throughout Southeast Asia, and lasted until the middle of 2021. The Pentagon used fictitious social media accounts to target audiences in Central Asia and the Middle East and spread panic about Chinese vaccines, especially among Muslim communities. The suggestion was that the vaccines might include pig gelatin, which is forbidden by Islamic law.

Started during the presidency of Donald Trump, the campaign continued under Joe Biden’s tenure. The campaign went forward in spite of social media executives’ worries, who informed the Biden administration about the Pentagon’s disinformation attempts. The anti-vaccination campaign was put on hold by the Biden administration in the spring of 2021, and an internal study was initiated by the Pentagon.

Representatives from the Biden and Trump administration did not reply when Reuters asked them to comment on the secret program. While acknowledging that the US military was involved in covert propaganda to undermine China’s vaccination efforts, a top Department of Defense official withheld additional information. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the US military fights attempts by hostile actors to influence the US and its allies through a variety of channels, including social media. The spokesperson incorrectly claimed that the US was responsible for the propagation of COVID-19, accusing China of initiating a disinformation campaign.

In response, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said via email that false information is disseminated and social media is manipulated by the US government. A representative for the Department of Health in the Philippines, meanwhile, stated that the pertinent authorities in the concerned nations should look into the findings of Reuters.

The Pentagon’s effort drew criticism from American public health professionals who claimed it put civilians in danger for geopolitical purposes. At Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine, infectious disease expert Daniel Lucey expressed his shock, sadness, and disgust with the US government’s conduct. He and others cautioned that the effort to sow anxiety about Chinese vaccinations ran the risk of eroding public confidence in health programs generally, including those utilizing vaccines produced in the United States. The WHO authorized the Chinese vaccinations even though they were not as effective as those made by Pfizer and Moderna. When contacted for comment, Sinovac remained silent.


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