Last month it was reported that texts warning of a military-enforced lockdown in the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic were in fact fake. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that it was Chinese agents who helped circulate the fake messages.
"They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters," said one of the fake messages. Another text urged people "stock up" with a "two week supply of everything," ahead of a two week nation-wide quarantine that would be enforced by President Trump "within 48 to 72 hours."
Within 48 hours of the texts surfacing, the White House's National Security Council confirmed that no such texts had gone out and there were no plans for a military-enforced lockdown. United States intelligence agencies have since looked further into the source of the messages, with six American officials asserting that Chinese operatives helped circulate them.
The exact origin of the messages isn't clear just yet, but six different agencies came to the conclusion it was another attempt to push disinformation. Two of the officials said they don't think the fake news started with Chinese operatives, but that they were amplifying them similar to how Russian operatives and bots did with the 2016 election. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook was singled out as the primary source for the proliferation of the fake news.
Sources say that these agents had also used texts and encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp to spread further spread the false information. The fact that the texts showed up on people's phones was especially alarming to the Times' sources. Top officials in China have reportedly issued global disinformation campaign orders to agencies, one of the Times' sources claimed. "It is part of the playbook of spreading division," said Senator Angus King. He added that bots also recently helped push the anti-lockdown protests.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry refuted the accusation that the country is engaging in such campaigns. "The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting," said ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. He previously told America to not engage in "political manipulation overseas" during a press conference on Friday. "We urge the U.S. to stop political manipulation, get its own house in order and focus more on fighting the epidemic and boosting the economy."
Meanwhile, Wired reports that Google's Threat Analysis Group also published findings that indicated state-sponsored campaigns had recently risen. "Hackers frequently look at crises as an opportunity, and COVID-19 is no different," said Google's TAG director Shane Huntley. "Across Google products, we’re seeing bad actors use COVID-related themes to create urgency so that people respond to phishing attacks and scams.… TAG has specifically identified over a dozen government-backed attacker groups using COVID-19 themes as lure for phishing and malware attempts—trying to get their targets to click malicious links and download files."
Google did not, however, identify which states had sponsored these disinformation campaigns.