Into an already toxic brew of political discord and hyperventilating social media, a pathogen of foreign origin arrives. To fight it, the country must unite. At the same time, the coronavirus makes us more vulnerable to manipulation, especially if people are scared and nobody seems to have good answers.
Some of that manipulation is from Russia, and some from China, and while the two countries are “not working in close cooperation, they are working in concert because they have similar goals,” said Fiona Hill, former national security official and Russia expert in the Trump White House.
Hill gained public notice when she testified before Congress last year on how a “domestic political errand” about Donald Trump’s potential challenger hijacked U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine.
Now back at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Russian disinformation, she talked to The Daily Beast about how Russia and China are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic. She began by noting, “The way the president refers to the ‘Chinese virus’ is not helpful. It’s a way of deflecting responsibility for the outcome, and that’s exactly what the Chinese and Russians are doing themselves.”
China’s goal is to head off a huge public backlash in which countries might even try to sue China for reparations. “The Chinese bear a great deal of responsibility for covering up and trying to deny the early outbreak,” she said. “China should be the skunk at everybody’s party. They don’t want to take responsibility for letting a localized virus become a global pandemic. And now with the United States in a prostrate position, they can step in and take on a leader’s role.”
Turning to Russia, Hill said its behavior fits into a longstanding pattern that began with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Back then, the KGB launched a fairly successful covert disinformation campaign dubbed “Operation Infektion” to convince people that the virus was really a U.S. biological weapon. That was easy for people to believe because they knew governments experimented on vulnerable people.
“We’ve been in this space a long time where there is a lot of misinformation that takes on a life of its own, and governments use it for propaganda purposes, to deflect from their own shortcomings, and to mobilize the population against an external enemy,” said Hill.
In February, after Hill’s departure, the State Department briefed reporters on what it said was a social-media disinformation campaign waged by the Russian government in order to blame the U.S. for the spread of COVID-19. Experts say much of the COVID-19 disinformation put out by Russia and others is overt and focuses on amplifying America’s own political fissures and disinformation about the pandemic.
“We continue to see accounts aligned with Russian State media work to sow discord in the United States by amplifying divisive content,” explains Daniel J. Jones, founder of the non-profit public investigations group, Advance Democracy, Inc. (ADI). “We typically track these efforts to exacerbate tensions in the context of elections, but we’re now seeing these accounts amplify divisive content relating to the COVID-19 global pandemic, to include offensive content relating to race.”
Jones pointed to how Russia’s English-language state-media outlets have played up both sides of the debate over whether to label the coronavirus by its official name, COVID-19, or the racially charged “Wuhan virus” preferred by the Trump administration. State-backed TV channel RT has blown off criticism of the “Wuhan virus”-style branding and wondered aloud whether the debate is “just media-manufactured outrage?” while the Russia-funded In the Now outlet highlighted the racist attacks on those of Asian descent that have taken place since the outbreak.
The European Union’s strategic communications division, which monitors Russian and other disinformation narratives, released a report in mid-March that found Kremlin propaganda was identifying and amplifying coronavirus concerns in order to “to sow distrust and division.” The EU report claimed that, rather than invest in new propaganda narratives, much of Russia’s recent disinformation on COVID-19 was “simply amplifying theories that originate elsewhere, e.g. in China, Iran or the US far right.”
As tensions with the U.S. reached a peak, Chinese diplomats waged a disinformation campaign that exploited a long-running theme in American conspiracy media focused on Fort Detrick, the former home of the U.S. Army’s long-shuttered biological-weapons program.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao led the charge on Twitter with a link to an article written by a Canadian conspiracy theorist that blamed Fort Detrick for the virus, an idea that’s long circulated in domestic conspiracy circles. In 2009, Infowars correspondent Paul Joseph Watson wrote a post for Global Research—the same conspiracy outlet Lijian linked to—falsely claiming that the swine flu pandemic may have originated with a pathogen from Fort Detrick.
Hill recounted her personal experience when she was one of the first people forcefully restrained at a Russian airport in September 1987, when the government decided while her student group was midair that HIV was a contagious disease and everybody entering the country had to be tested.
The group of two dozen students spent a nervous 48 hours in the airport and were then quarantined in their dorm rooms until they got the results. Russia at the time was jailing people who spread STDs, so there was some genuine nervousness about how HIV spread, and about these possibly promiscuous students coming for a year, Hill recalled with some amusement, but as CNN and the BBC covered the standoff, “it was also to show that a capitalist country was the source of this new scourge.”
In 2016, Russia sowed confusion and chaos, said Hill, chiefly through social media. “They wanted Hillary grievously injured if she won. They didn’t expect Trump to win, but the fact that he won under a massive cloud, it’s a perfect outcome.”
The uproar over Russia’s involvement undermined Trump’s legitimacy as a leader, which served Russia’s interests, as did Trump’s denigration of NATO.
“Their goal has been to neutralize the U.S. and keep it out of the international arena as much as possible. The idea that the U.S. has lost leadership is deeply satisfying to Russia,” said Hill, author of the 2015 book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
“2016 was about discrediting U.S. leadership,” she said. In the 2018 midterm elections, the hacking of systems wasn’t particularly significant. Rather, “it’s the hacking of our minds that is the problem.”
She continued, “There is so much domestic disinformation tied to our own politics that the Russians don’t have to do much of anything to capitalize on what they already did in 2016. It’s basically a force multiplier for them. They don’t have to do anything on the scale of 2016.”
She recalled the disbelief after Trump won the election that the Russians had been so effective using social media. “It was low-cost interference with a high payback. All they did is amplify our own discord. They were just sending it around retweeting—we all know that now—they just circulated around this disinformation to all kinds of groups.”
It was information warfare, Hill said, geared to divide Americans and to break the resolve of government. “The Russians still see us as a threat,” she added, while Russia is seen by Trump “as a tool wielded by Democrats against the president.”
Because the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the election was tied to his legitimacy, Trump was hostile to it, said Hill, and because so many people couldn’t believe he would win with such a small margin, he immediately attacked the premise of the investigation.
It should have been framed differently, she said, around the question of “What did the Russians do?” not “What did Trump do?”
“I think we would have ended up in the same place” with Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, indicted, along with a number of Russian individuals, she said, “but it would have had more credibility.”
Russia is not going to be immune to the virus. Reports show the number of cases climbing and after initially saying the virus was “under control,” Putin canceled all incoming international flights except those with returning Russians, and declared next week a stay-at-home holiday.
“But they’re still geared up to push back on the U.S.,” said Hill, who urges a more rational discussion than what we got during the impeachment process when in her view partisanship furthered the tendency to make Ukraine the issue, undermining the whole idea that there was collusion between the campaign and Russia. “We should be pulling together instead of attacking Ukraine,” she said with some exasperation.
As for Russia’s plans for the 2020 election, Hill said: “I expect them to keep on doing what they already do because it’s proving successful for them. It’s also possible they will hack and dump—like they did with the DNC emails in 2016 and the releases to WikiLeaks. But the most effective approach is simply mining and amplifying all the disinformation that’s already out there in the U.S. political arena, or things like looking for rifts between Biden and Bernie Sanders, any grievance or discord we have that they can exploit. There’s so much potential material out there for them to use. Social media has proved extraordinarily useful—Facebook, YouTube, Twitter all have to police what they’re doing. This is not something that can be tackled on the government level.”