Argument

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China Fires Back at Biden With Conspiracy Theories About Maryland Lab

Since Washington launched the Wuhan lab leak investigation, Beijing has been pushing bizarre narratives.

By , a media and disinformation fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Fort Detrick Army Lab in Maryland
A sign at Fort Detrick U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland, on Aug. 1, 2008. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would reexamine the theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab, Beijing’s response was deny and deflect. Asked at a May 27 press conference about the U.S. investigation into a possible virus leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian quickly changed the subject. “What secrets are hidden in the suspicion-shrouded Fort Detrick and the over 200 U.S. biolabs all over the world?” he asked in response.

Since then, Chinese diplomats and government officials, in concert with China’s vast propaganda apparatus and covert networks of online agitators and influencers, have worked diligently to focus suspicion on Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army biological research facility in Frederick, Maryland, about 50 miles from Washington. According to data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard, at least 35 key Chinese officials and state media outlets have mentioned Fort Detrick in more than 115 tweets in nine languages since Zhao’s press conference. Many of those tweets have attempted to smear the lab’s reputation, for example by alleging the U.S. lab is “inextricably linked” with Japan’s notorious Unit 731, a germ warfare unit that targeted China during World War II.

But Beijing’s recent information blitz against Fort Detrick is just the latest in a yearlong campaign to cast aspersions on the lab. Since March 2020, Chinese government officials and state-affiliated media have mentioned Fort Detrick in more than 400 articles, videos, tweets, and press conferences. Many of those messages have focused on reciprocal transparency and access to U.S. research labs by Chinese investigators—the diplomatic equivalent of “you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” But those more measured appeals have been joined by the promotion of elaborate conspiracy narratives, beginning with the claim that the virus was brought from the Fort Detrick area to Wuhan by U.S. Army reservist Maatje Benassi, who competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019. To bolster the claim, the state-run tabloid the Global Times cited writings by George Webb, an American conspiracy theorist best known for temporarily shutting down the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, by planting an online rumor that a “dirty bomb” was arriving via a cargo ship. Webb also suggested an Italian disc jockey, Benny Benassi (no relation to Maatje Benassi), was involved in the U.S. plot to bring the virus to Wuhan.

When U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would reexamine the theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab, Beijing’s response was deny and deflect. Asked at a May 27 press conference about the U.S. investigation into a possible virus leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian quickly changed the subject. “What secrets are hidden in the suspicion-shrouded Fort Detrick and the over 200 U.S. biolabs all over the world?” he asked in response.

Since then, Chinese diplomats and government officials, in concert with China’s vast propaganda apparatus and covert networks of online agitators and influencers, have worked diligently to focus suspicion on Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army biological research facility in Frederick, Maryland, about 50 miles from Washington. According to data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard, at least 35 key Chinese officials and state media outlets have mentioned Fort Detrick in more than 115 tweets in nine languages since Zhao’s press conference. Many of those tweets have attempted to smear the lab’s reputation, for example by alleging the U.S. lab is “inextricably linked” with Japan’s notorious Unit 731, a germ warfare unit that targeted China during World War II.

But Beijing’s recent information blitz against Fort Detrick is just the latest in a yearlong campaign to cast aspersions on the lab. Since March 2020, Chinese government officials and state-affiliated media have mentioned Fort Detrick in more than 400 articles, videos, tweets, and press conferences. Many of those messages have focused on reciprocal transparency and access to U.S. research labs by Chinese investigators—the diplomatic equivalent of “you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” But those more measured appeals have been joined by the promotion of elaborate conspiracy narratives, beginning with the claim that the virus was brought from the Fort Detrick area to Wuhan by U.S. Army reservist Maatje Benassi, who competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019. To bolster the claim, the state-run tabloid the Global Times cited writings by George Webb, an American conspiracy theorist best known for temporarily shutting down the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, by planting an online rumor that a “dirty bomb” was arriving via a cargo ship. Webb also suggested an Italian disc jockey, Benny Benassi (no relation to Maatje Benassi), was involved in the U.S. plot to bring the virus to Wuhan.

When the theory that Maatje Benassi was patient zero failed to gain traction, Beijing trial-ballooned a host of alternative conspiracy theories. One suggests a temporary shutdown of Fort Detrick in July 2019 over security protocol breaches was a precursor for the wider outbreak. Chinese state media hinted at a cover-up by citing coverage of the closure from numerous major U.S. outlets, including the New York Times, while simultaneously suggesting news about the closure was being “deleted” from the internet—something more possible in China than the United States.

As outlandish as some of the Fort Detrick claims by official Chinese sources have been, they represent the sanitized tip of a much larger conspiracy theory iceberg.

From there, however, Beijing’s claims have gotten more convoluted, including suggestions of a link between the coronavirus and a 2019 outbreak of EVALI (the lung disease associated with vaping) in Wisconsin, with diplomats intentionally or mistakenly claiming the outbreak occurred “only near Fort Detrick”—never mind that Wisconsin is some 800 miles from the lab. Another oddball theory attempts to draw a link between COVID-19 and an unrelated outbreak of a respiratory virus in a northern Virginia senior care facility. In a video posted to Chinese state media outlet CGTN’s YouTube channel titled “Residents around U.S. Fort Detrick biolab keep silence about suspected COVID-19 outbreak,” a reporter tries but fails to gain access to the facility. He is identified only as a “U.S. stringer,” but open-source research suggests he is a camera operator working for Russia’s Channel One, one of the country’s major domestic propaganda outlets that also peddles in conspiracy theories.

As outlandish as some of the Fort Detrick claims by official Chinese sources have been, they represent the saner, sanitized tip of a much larger conspiracy theory iceberg. Across Chinese social media sites, self-anointed online sleuths, crackpots, and anonymous trolls have spammed comment sections and posted content peddling a panoply of Fort Detrick conspiracy narratives without fact checks, labels, or other forms of content moderation. Whether or not these efforts are coordinated at the state level is unclear. However, numerous studies, including one I co-wrote, have highlighted Beijing’s willingness to manufacture consensus through the use of coordinated inauthentic behavior. In the case of Fort Detrick narratives, there are several examples of Chinese officials retweeting suspicious accounts. The cultural counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, for example, retweeted a newly created, anonymous account whose second-ever tweet happened to mirror Beijing’s talking points about the alleged connection between Fort Detrick and Unit 731.

It’s easy to poke holes in Beijing’s Fort Detrick narratives, starting with the fact that the two labs studying coronaviruses in the United States are in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina—not Frederick, Maryland. But with influence operations, soundness of logic is less important than repetition. Beijing’s efforts to carpet bomb information platforms with theories—however implausible—about Fort Detrick’s role in the global pandemic have borne some fruit. In January, after Hua Chunying, another spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, repeated false claims about Fort Detrick, the lab topped the trending topic chart on Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform. And the effect is not limited to China. According to Google Trends, the topic and query terms most associated with Google searches for “Fort Detrick” over the past two years were “Wuhan” and “coronavirus,” respectively.

Beijing’s campaign to direct global suspicion toward Fort Detrick began with a single tweet. In March 2020, Zhao—whose Twitter exploits have earned him nearly 1 million followerscreated a firestorm when he linked to a since-deleted article published by Global Research, a conspiratorial site the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center named one of the six pillars of Russian disinformation. The article suggested the virus could have originated at Fort Detrick. Although more than two dozen official Chinese diplomatic accounts retweeted Zhao’s tweet, the Fort Detrick lab leak theory initially failed to gain significant traction. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, told Axios at the time it was “crazy” to suggest the virus originated from a military lab in the United States. But as the Trump administration ratcheted up its anti-Chinese rhetoric over the spring and summer, Beijing’s initial reluctance to fully embrace the Fort Detrick narrative morphed into a persistent and consistent influence campaign. Chinese diplomats from Cape Town, South Africa, to Karachi, Pakistan, began parroting Zhao’s claims while state media fanned the flames with sensationalist headlines, such as “The Fort Detrick horror: a closer look at the US’ largest biochemical weapons research center.”

Interestingly, suspicion of the lab did not originate in China—nor in relation to the coronavirus. Nearly four decades ago, the lab played a starring role in one of the most infamous Soviet “active measures” of the Cold War. In 1983, KGB agents planted a purported letter to the editor in a friendly Indian newspaper alleging the AIDS virus had been “manufactured” at Fort Detrick. The claim was repeated across the developing world, aided and abetted by Soviet cutout newspapers, the analog equivalent of troll farms and bot networks. Known as “Operation InfeKtion” or “Operation Denver,” the campaign established Fort Detrick as the archetype of a shadowy, secretive government lab.

Since then, Fort Detrick has become a trope—a recurring antagonist dusted off every few years to play the villain in the latest virus-related disinformation drama. And like other successful formulas, the Fort Detrick franchise has spawned multiple spinoffs, with U.S.-funded research labs around the world serving as the setting for all manners of sinister activities. In the country of Georgia, for example, the U.S.-funded Lugar Center for Public Health Research has frequently found itself in the crosshairs of Kremlin disinformation since the lab was established in 2011. From claims the lab was used to release toxic mosquitos on targeted populations to allegations it was involved in the 2018 poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom, the Lugar lab has been featured in more than a dozen different disinformation campaigns. Unsurprisingly, it has also been the target of coronavirus disinformation narratives.

Beijing has also stoked fears of U.S.-funded biolabs outside the United States. Since February 2020, Chinese officials and state media have posted more than 185 tweets referring to an alleged 200 biological labs operated by the United States around the world. Beijing’s favored narratives have varied from those spreading general suspicion of U.S. intentions to more explicit claims that the location of U.S. labs “closely resembles the spread of some diseases and viruses in recent years.” None of these claims have been backed with hard evidence. But, like with the Fort Detrick narrative, that’s not the point. The persistent and consistent nature of Beijing’s accusations have undoubtedly spun up suspicion of the lab—particularly in those parts of the world where mistrust of U.S. foreign policy is already high.

For Beijing and Moscow, disinformation campaigns targeting Fort Detrick and other U.S. labs have clear, short-term strategic benefits. For Russia, the primary goal, as during Soviet times, is to damage the United States’ international reputation, especially in regions where U.S. influence is perceived to be a threat to Moscow. For China, the objective is either retribution or, if there is any truth to the Wuhan lab leak theory, the creation of a diversion to distract from and dilute the truth. In both cases, however, the intent to damage the United States with virus-related conspiracy theories has come with significant consequences to global public health.

Efforts to manipulate information about the virus’s origins can cause real harm—including within China and, most acutely, Russia, where vaccine skepticism has contributed to a deadly new wave of cases.

The Kremlin’s AIDS disinformation campaign, for example, helped create widespread denialism among at-risk populations around the world, including within the United States. In Africa, where Radio Moscow once claimed the United States was using vaccination programs to spread HIV as a test for biological warfare, Soviet disinformation almost certainly contributed to tens of thousands of preventable deaths year after year.

The same risks certainly apply today. As the world continues to grapple with vaccine skepticism and reluctance toward other public health measures aimed at curbing COVID-19’s spread, efforts to manipulate information about the virus’s origins can cause real harm—including within China and, most acutely, Russia, where vaccine skepticism has contributed to a deadly new wave of cases. And therein lies the problem with information operations, particularly in the digital age: Like a virus, information cannot be controlled once it reaches the general population, and as it spreads, it can mutate in never intended ways.

Beijing should heed these risks—if not for the sake of the world’s pandemic recovery, then for the sake of its own citizens.

Bret Schafer is a media and disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

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