Exclusive

U.S. Army Failed to Warn Troops About COVID-19 Disinformation

Most soldiers said they weren’t told how to deal with Chinese and Russian propaganda.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A preventive medicine services sergeant administers a COVID-19 vaccine.
A preventive medicine services sergeant administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a soldier at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on Sept. 9. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

In the first months of the pandemic, the U.S. Army failed to warn most soldiers about Chinese and Russian coronavirus disinformation, according to a survey conducted last year and obtained by Foreign Policy

A survey conducted in late May 2020, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, indicated the vast majority of U.S. Army soldiers and civilian employees—around 87 percent—had not received any information from their units about adversarial propaganda about the virus.

The study, entitled the “Army COVID-19 Campaign Plan,” came at the direction of senior Army leadership, who held outsized fears of Chinese and Russian propaganda impacting U.S. military readiness and recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 5,400 people took part in the online survey. Just over half were civilian employees with the rest drawn from different components of the Army.

In the first months of the pandemic, the U.S. Army failed to warn most soldiers about Chinese and Russian coronavirus disinformation, according to a survey conducted last year and obtained by Foreign Policy

A survey conducted in late May 2020, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, indicated the vast majority of U.S. Army soldiers and civilian employees—around 87 percent—had not received any information from their units about adversarial propaganda about the virus.

The study, entitled the “Army COVID-19 Campaign Plan,” came at the direction of senior Army leadership, who held outsized fears of Chinese and Russian propaganda impacting U.S. military readiness and recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 5,400 people took part in the online survey. Just over half were civilian employees with the rest drawn from different components of the Army.

By March 2020, when much of the world was going into lockdown, Russia and China were actively promoting disinformation about the virus’s origins. Chinese officials falsely claimed without evidence that the U.S. military may have brought the virus to the city of Wuhan, China, while pro-Kremlin media alleged the virus was the product of a U.S. laboratory. 

Although veterans groups, disinformation experts, and service members have for years been warning about foreign adversaries’ efforts to target members of the military, the findings suggest the Army was slow to counter disinformation that worked to undermine government trust and stymie efforts to stop the virus’s threat. 

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, said he was surprised that almost 90 percent of people surveyed had not received information from their units about disinformation related to the pandemic. “Even if you cut that number in half, 40-something percent, that’s still a lot in an organization that prides itself on pushing information through the chain of command,” Hodges said. 

In a statement, an Army spokesperson said the study helped inform the service about how to respond to pandemic disinformation but said the results reflected an early picture of its response.

“The survey—conducted in the infancy of the pandemic in the U.S.—was intended to help us learn what Soldiers were hearing about COVID, and where they were hearing it from,” Lt. Col. Terence Kelley, a U.S. Army spokesperson, said in a written statement. “The data better informed our efforts in education about what Soldiers should do to protect themselves, their families, and their units, as well as countering mis- and disinformation. But like all surveys, it was a snapshot in time, and we know much more now than we did in those early days.”

The survey’s timing may also have influenced some of its findings. “It was very hard for the Defense Department to get ahead of the very real and deadly threats of the coronavirus at the same time that their commander in chief, President [Donald] Trump, was downplaying the risk,” said Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow with the New America foundation think tank. 

Social media offers the opportunity to reach out to service members, veterans, and their communities directly. In 2019, advocacy group Vietnam Veterans of America published the results of a two-year investigation that found “​​persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy.” 

For years, Russia has been known to spread false, damaging stories about NATO forces in Europe. In 2017, Russian operatives sought to plant a fake story that German soldiers had raped a teenage girl in Lithuania in a bid to undermine support for NATO troops stationed in the country. 

The United States as a whole is still coming to grips with the magnitude of the information warfare threat, Singer said. “There’s still a large amount of denial about their scale and seriousness.” 

Almost 60 percent of those who responded to the U.S. Army’s survey said they had seen false claims about the pandemic spread by a variety of malign actors, including Russia and China. Claims that the United States was using the crisis for political gain, that 5G cell phone towers caused the pandemic, and that the military wasn’t being transparent about the number of infected people were among those most commonly encountered.

A second internal survey, which ran from late July through August of last year, tested receptiveness to a variety of falsehoods and disinformation about COVID-19. Many of the messages the Army considered to be Chinese and Russian disinformation did not find resonance among U.S. soldiers. Five percent of those who heard the claim said they believed the virus was created in a U.S. lab. 

But some narratives did appear to gel with frustration within the force about the Pentagon’s response. Forty percent of the respondents said they believed the Defense Department was not being transparent about the number of soldiers and agency employees infected with COVID-19—something the Army flagged as a possible disinformation message. 

“If I was a commander and 40 percent of my soldiers said they didn’t believe me, that would be devastating,” Hodges said, who is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis. “If the soldiers don’t trust their chain of command, that is a significant impediment to the ability of a unit to function.” 

A small minority echoed Facebook disinformation and right-wing talk show hosts. “I have not fallen victim to the hysteria perpetrated by the news media,” one troop member said. Another described the pandemic as a “hoax.”

Although the vast majority of troops received Army guidance about the virus, those numbers were lower among enlisted troops. In some instances, soldiers said Army units failed to comply strictly with COVID-19 guidance, citing instances of failing to wear masks inside office buildings, not practicing social distancing, keeping photo studios and barbershops on base open, and resisting telework. One troop described “being told to return to work prior to bans being lifted” while another indicated their command did not want to allow telework, “which seemed reckless to me as most jobs only require a laptop.” 

Thirty-four percent of people who responded to the survey said health and safety measures were lower on their bases than in surrounding communities, something the Army flagged as a concern given outbreaks early in the pandemic at installations in Japan, South Korea, and at Fort Benning, Georgia. 

At the time of the poll, nearly 73 percent of troops surveyed said they planned to get the vaccine, in line with Pew Research Center polling data of the U.S. public at large. But in a finding that appeared to trouble Army leaders, just 51 percent of those surveyed said they intended to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to self-isolate for 14 days after being exposed to the virus. 

Foreign Policy’s publication of the results of these surveys comes as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin imposes a Dec. 15 deadline for active duty U.S. Army troops to get the vaccine, following a directive from U.S. President Joe Biden. Congressional Republicans have continued to chafe at the vaccine mandate, fearing the move will force the military to discharge capable service members. The delta variant has hit younger, unvaccinated populations harder than previous iterations of the disease.

On Monday, Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Austin asking for the removal of the vaccine mandate.

With thousands of U.S. troops, civilians, and contractors yet to comply with the vaccine mandate, Inhofe said he was concerned about the “mass attrition” of Pentagon personnel. “The lack of strategic foresight in the implementation of the COVID vaccination mandate is inexcusable,” Inhofe wrote to Austin. “Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the Department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known.” 

Ninety-seven percent of active duty troops across all U.S. military services have had at least one dose of the vaccine, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said last week.

Update, Oct. 21, 2021: This story has been updated to provide a response from the U.S. Army.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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