This has involved unleashing techniques Russia perfected during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. “We’ve seen China adopt Russian-style social media manipulation tactics like using bots and trolls to amplify disinformation on COVID-19,” Lea Gabrielle, the special envoy and coordinator for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, wrote to me in an email. “Both countries repress information within their countries while taking advantage of the open and free information environments in democracies to push conspiracy theories that seek to undermine those environments.”
As the world realized the virus was spreading out of control, Chinese diplomats, official media, and Twitter influencers launched an aggressive frenzy of defense, scrambling to preserve the Chinese Communist Party’s cratering reputation at home and overseas. And then they went on offense, with an assist from perhaps thousands of fake or hacked Twitter accounts, according to the investigative site ProPublica. The result was a coordinated campaign of attacks on the United States, and the spread of disinformation and confusion about where the virus really came from and whose screwup it was really that led to so much death.
Other countries’ faltering responses to the virus have only bolstered this narrative, and the CCP has gleefully trumpeted America’s failures in particular. “Loose political system in the US allows more than 4000 people to die of pandemic every day,” Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times newspaper, tweeted in April. “Americans are so good tempered.” Beyond the immediate crisis, this kind of narrative also serves the longer-term goal. In the words of Matt Schrader, a former China analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund: “Ultimately it’s about the [Chinese Communist Party] being the most powerful political entity on the planet.”