HONG KONG—In mid-March, a woman in her twenties who was living in Albuquerque, typed up three posts for Twitter—what she called her “shower thoughts.” She had started to wonder if COVID-19 had popped up in the United States much earlier than officials let on, maybe even in early January, well before the disease was recognized as a serious issue within American borders.
Beatrice is not a doctor, nurse, or epidemiologist, and she asked we not use her last name. Until recently she only had a few hundred followers for a feed mainly about her family and her day to day life. She was was just wondering aloud on Twitter, as people do, what was going on with this disease.
She’s a new mother, so she thought about posts left by healthcare workers on Twitter and Facebook that suggested there were more virulent cases of the flu at the beginning of 2020 than in years past. Then, she ended the posts by mentioning a triad of necessary actions—wash your hands, stay at home as much as you can, and don’t hoard crucial supplies when other people might need them, which was pretty common advice by early March.
A week later, an outspoken Chinese public official hijacked her tweets, and they went viral.
This was no random retweet. The official was none other than Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry and face of the Chinese Communist Party, who has been leading a kind of “so’s your mother” campaign to blame anybody but China for the pandemic—preferably the country that elected Donald “Chinese Virus” Trump.
Earlier in the month, Zhao blended a conspiracy theory with statements by legitimate doctors who have been managing the outbreak in China, suggesting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was developed in America as a bio-weapon and introduced to China by the U.S. Army to annihilate large clusters of the country’s population. Time and time again, Zhao has been channeling vitriol from Chinese trolls and directing it at the United States.
It’s hard to say how Zhao found Beatrice’s tweet, but Zhao’s message has largely been consistent in the past weeks—that the virus might not have originated in China, that it likely came from somewhere else, that it probably was cultivated intentionally in the United States.
And Beatrice had for Zhao all the authority he needed. His actions, reflecting broader sentiments shared by others within the Chinese Communist Party, were really just the flipside of Trump and his administration’s way of navigating an ultimately trivial public image crisis during the pandemic apocalypse. While a White House official called the virus “Kung-Flu” and Trump insists on calling it the “Chinese virus,” Beijing’s state-run media has termed it “the Trump pandemic.”
It might have been easy to write off Zhao’s series of bonkers tweets as personal tirades if a cluster of Chinese ambassadors based around the world had not been parroting Zhao’s words, suggesting there is a concerted effort within Beijing’s diplomatic branch to sow doubt about the likelihood of COVID-19 first emerging in China, specifically Hubei province, where the official count for COVID-19 infections is more than 67,800, and the official death count stands at 3,160. (Many cases in the province, and the rest of the country, have been left out of the official tally.)
Italy has been in the crosshairs of the Chinese Communist Party as well. Global Times, the CCP’s histrionic mouthpiece, referenced an NPR report quoting Dr. Giuseppe Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan. The doctor said general practitioners in the country “remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November.”
On Sunday, the Chinese state-run outlet began laying the groundwork to suggest that Italy may be the source of COVID-19 as well. But even before then, in February, the hashtag for “Italian virus” was being used on Weibo, a social network in China, to describe the outbreak’s biological agent. (China’s first COVID-19 case can be traced back to November 17.)
There have been some efforts to dial back Zhao’s pernicious words within the ranks of Chinese diplomats. This week, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said during an interview on Axios on HBO that it is “crazy” to spread conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Whether Cui’s assessment reflects a split among Chinese diplomats is anyone’s guess. But Zhao’s designs to sling mud and see what sticks have found appeal within the CCP.
After the emergence of a photo of Trump’s notes at a press conference showing “corona” (in “coronavirus”) crossed out and replaced with “Chinese,” Global Times published an article titled “Trump pandemic rages,” citing tweets by Rosie O’Donnell and Joe Lockhart, a White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, who have used the terms “Trump Pandemic” and “Trump Plague.”
And there’s the key—for the CCP to propagate its message, its officials realize that they themselves cannot be the driving voices. It’s easier to pick and choose from the endless pool of commentary that is produced by Americans, like Beatrice, all logged online. While this may be nowhere as calculated as Russia’s disinformation campaigns during the last U.S. presidential election, damage is still being done.
Zhao and his ilk are attempting to sway the conversation about the pandemic and rewrite history—not only what has already happened, but also what’s happening now, as countries outside of East Asia are taking their turns with the disease and being hit hard. The CCP’s disinformation is happening in real-time, recorded on social media, but the platforms that are hosting it aren’t making any moves to purge it.
On Monday, a spokesperson for Twitter told The Daily Beast that COVID-19 disinformation disseminated by Chinese officials is “not in violation of the Twitter Rules.” For the company, it is fine for these individuals in Beijing and Chinese embassies around the world to push fake news into public discourse.
In turn, the truth is delayed, or overwhelmed and drowned out—precisely aligning with the goals of people like Zhao.
As for Beatrice, she’s getting on with her life.
“To all my new (non mom) followers, welcome,” she tweeted on Tuesday. “I can’t wait to disappoint you all because 99% of my tweets are about my shit show of a life and my kid. Not weird conspiracy theory shower thoughts.”