U.S. intelligence officials believe that agents of the Chinese government helped boost fake claims through social media and text messages in March aimed at stoking panic over nationwide lockdowns over the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from The New York Times.
The newspaper cited six intelligence officials all in different agencies who said that Chinese agents helped spread messages claiming that the Trump administration was planning to impose curfews, and would deploy troops to prevent widespread looting and rioting.
The officials are keenly interested in the operation because many of the messages were circulated through text message.
Two officials told TheNYT that they do not believe that Chinese operatives created the messages, but that they merely helped spread them.
The messages, which circulated widely in mid-March, included vague claims of draconian nationwide lockdowns citing sources from the Pentagon, National Security Council or FBI. Some urged recipients to take money out of their bank accounts and fill up on gas ahead of the purported lockdowns.
“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” reads one message cited by TheNYT. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”
“Just a heads up,” read one message received by the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Just got word from a friend who works for the FBI and National Security Council advising the president. She says that tomorrow POTUS will announce a ‘Stage 1’ government Lockdown.”
“It will most likely be a domestic flight ban, and/or mandatory curfew.”
“She said things are going to be crazy tomorrow, and its [sic] probably best to get some serious groceries before the afternoon announcement tomorrow.”
The Trump administration has offered guidelines urging Americans to curtail social gatherings and non-essential business activities but has not ended domestic flights or imposed curfews.
The National Security Council responded to the viral messages on March 15, calling them “FAKE.”
U.S. officials said that the Chinese agents are likely using WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging platforms to circulate the messages, according to TheNYT. One senior American official told the paper that intelligence officers are looking into whether Chinese diplomats in the United States are helping disseminate the fake messages.
Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, declined comment when asked about China’s possible involvement in the fake messages.
“The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting,” he told TheNYT.
The Chinese government has also spread propaganda from its diplomats and government-controlled media outlets deflecting blame for the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan in mid-November 2019.
Zhao, the spokesman for the foreign ministry, got in on the act in March, tweeting that the “U.S. military brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”