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Viral texts about coronavirus lockdown were amplified by Chinese operatives, US officials say

The agents appeared to be using Russian disinformation techniques

The White House Holds Daily Briefing On Coronavirus Pandemic Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Chinese operatives helped amplify a viral text message that falsely claimed President Trump was going to instate a nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19, reports The New York Times. US officials said the operatives were engaging in disinformation tactics similar to the ones Russia used in 2016.

The rumor, which gained traction around mid-March, claimed to be coming from someone close to the White House. It said Trump was doing to lock down the country to stop the spread of COVID-19. “Please be advised,” one version of the text message began. “Within 48 to 72 hours the President will evoke what is called the Stafford Act. Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.”

On March 15th, the White House National Security Council debunked the myth in a tweet, saying: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.”

While Chinese operatives did not create the message, intelligence agencies in the United States determined that they helped circulate it across different platforms, including on Facebook and over SMS. “Those efforts enabled the messages to catch the attention of enough people that they then spread on their own, with little need for further work by foreign agents,” the NYT reports.

In some cases, the agents created fake social media accounts to promote the message to people who were predisposed to believe it. Those people then sent it out to their networks, allowing the myth to gain traction.

The lockdown rumor isn’t the first coronavirus myth that has been linked to China. Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, spread misinformation that the coronavirus may not have originated in Wuhan, and was instead brought by the US military. “CDC was caught on the spot,” he tweeted on March 12th. “When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that they had anything to do with the viral text message, telling the NYT, “The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting.”