Fake “Confession” Accusing U.S. of Fabricating Covid-19 Goes Viral on Weibo — Part of a Larger Influence Campaign?
On 8/11/2020, a newly activated Facebook account by the name of “Smantha Hill”, published a long post, claiming to deliver a first-hand explosive testimony about the real origins of COVID-19, starting with a supposed confession: ”Sorry, we played an evil part in the outbreak of COVID-19”. The post’s author, pretending to own the Facebook account, claimed to be a female scientist of Indian origin who had worked with renowned American coronavirus researchers over the past several years. In the following conspiratorial narrative, she tied together U.S. military, Fort Detrick Lab, Gilead Sciences, Jared Kushner, the CDC, the CIA Event 201, and investment firm Blackrock, in a long tale claiming COVID-19 had originated in the U.S.with a detailed graph showing the connections between the entities accompanying the testimony. The post ends with three covid19 related hashtags in Hindi.
From Facebook to Weibo and Twitter
While the Facebook account does not look authentic, and the post got less than 100 shares over the past week, a day after the post was published (and a google doc with the text was created) a Chinese version of the post uploaded to Weibo was liked over 70,000 times and shared close to 30,000 times in the past three days. The automated translation of the post was uploaded by Zhao Shengye, a verified blogger with over 3 Million fans on Weibo. The post fueled the already existing discussion on the chinese platform about the “American virus” narrative.
While the post gains traction on Chinese social media, a parallel effort to disseminate it on Twitter was launched. Over the past week, three newly-created Twitter accounts tweeted screenshots of the Facebook post. The first tweet was published less than ten minutes after the Facebook post, from the account @Elizabe39156345, with the name “Elizabeth Richards” which was created around 8/6/2020. The tweet was the fourth and last tweet coming from the account, and despite a mere 15 followers, the tweet has been retweeted 82 times, mostly by Chinese accounts.
On 8/12, the post was shared again on Twitter by a newly created account, (created around 8/2/2020) by @IsabellaAllan13, another inauthentic account with only seven tweets. On 8/13 a third tweet from another new account @Madelei03956336, which was created and tweeted its first tweet (with the same text) on the same day and hour as “@IsabellaAllan13” was shared, linking to the Google Doc.
The biggest account that retweeted the tweet was @ArakawaKarl, a Chinese account created less than a year ago with 7k followers, but dozens of accounts that retweeted the claims were created in the past month, many of their bios in Russian. Meanwhile, a Chinese translation of the post has been circulating on Twitter, with tweets including screenshots of it gaining dozens of retweets. On 8/15 the google doc version was also shared to the r/China subreddit, only to be ridiculed by a handful of users.
Another piece of (dis)information in the Fort Detrick narrative
This recent “first-hand” Indian testimony comes as CCP officials continue to use “Fort Detrick” in an effort to push back against the U.S. administration’s finger pointing towards China accompanied by continuous targeting of Wuhan lab. On 8/11, the same day the testimony surfaced on Facebook, China Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Lizian Zhao tweeted that “Facts about the Wuhan Institute of Virology are open and transparent. But much remains unclear about US’ #FortDetrick”. This tweet was preceded by articles in right wing websites of a publication of a new book written by an Italian scientist, claim to prove Wuhan lab is the source of the virus. Interestingly, both the confession post blaming U.S. and the book blaming China, mentioning many of the same scientists from U.S., Canada and China.
Generally, the testimony effort seems to be part of a larger influence operation, woven into the “American virus” narrative. This narrative, pushed overtly by Chinese officials and covertly by Chinese online efforts, claims that the U.S. administration played a role in creation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease via the Fort Detrick Lab in Maryland.
While the source and target of the “testimony” is unclear, the Facebook post fits with much of the narrative that has originated in China, which is also the only place where this “testimony” has gained organic traction thus far (via Weibo). However, the target audience could also be outside of China, perhaps in India or the west.
The relative virality of the “testimony” through Weibo exemplifies another challenge in the current information ecosystem: how virality of false narratives, possibly as part of an influence operation, could occur outside of U.S.-based social platforms.The relative virality of the “testimony” through Weibo exemplifies another challenge in the current information ecosystem: virality of false narratives, possibly as part of an influence operation, could occur outside of U.S. based social platforms (even if they might be used as a source).
// Please see an update to this story, revealing more parts of the network on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.