Disinformation Challenges in a Pandemic

A recharged public diplomacy needs to join whole-of-government policy deliberations at the highest level.


The medical and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 emergency are grave enough, but the crisis shouts another wake-up call. The challenging environment of a contested global information space, where facts, logic and even science compete with disinformation, malign narratives, conspiracy theories and propaganda, is on full display. This is public diplomacy’s arena.

Candor requires us to first acknowledge that these are domestic challenges, too. American factions argue. Talking heads spin. Think-tanks advocate different policies. Friends tweet hearsay medical advice and rumors. Social media users click on conspiracies. Others create memes to suit their biases. Every press conference by the president, governors and city mayors is put through the wringer.

All this is amplified by America’s current political and social polarization. Decades in the making, it has become acute in an election year when the record of a loved and hated president is so vehemently contested. Public diplomacy (PD) practitioners know that all our domestic disputes are exported and repackaged by the world’s media; the theme of their rewrites can range from dismay to delight.

I am confident that the enduring strength of America’s constitutional structures—separation of powers, federalism, advice and consent, and elections among them, with journalists, editors, policy experts and scholars playing their own roles—will enable us to weather both the crisis and the current distempers on our own. But for U.S. public diplomacy, there’s more.

Many countries are “weaponizing” information, especially through social media. They craft narratives that support authoritarian rule, stoke nationalism to deflect discontent with their own governance and seek to weaken the United States in several ways—to discredit America’s international leadership, erode its soft power, undermine confidence in American democracy and subvert the cohesion of U.S. society.

Chinese and Russian Disinformation

In this charged information environment, many states and nonstate actors are in motion, but Russia and China are the pacing threats.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reacted sharply when Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted two manufactured conspiracy theories—that Patient Zero was an American soldier who visited Wuhan to participate in the October 2019 Military World Games, and that the virus broke loose from the U.S. Army’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The Secretary expressed “strong U.S. objections” over China’s efforts to “shift blame” for the virus to the United States, and he told the director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China, Yang Jiechi, that this was not the time to “spread disinformation and outlandish rumors.”

After the Secretary and the White House started using the terms “China virus” and “Wuhan virus,” Chinese reactions departed from the usual measured phrases of diplomacy. Another Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, tweeted that Secretary Pompeo should “stop lying through your teeth.”

The Chinese party-state is now using all its information tools to advance three propaganda lines. First, it was China’s—meaning the Chinese Communist Party’s—superior system of governance that brought the medical crisis to a quick end. Second, the resolute Chinese response “bought enough time” for other nations to respond. (This narrative theme has two bonuses—to mute domestic anger over how the Chinese government and the Communist Party suppressed early evidence of the disease outbreak, and to shine light on American delays.)

Third, China is pushing the narrative that it is the global leader against the pandemic and is generously sending aid to other nations still grappling with it. China’s domestic and international media sing these same three songs. In China’s foreign ministry and at its embassies, a new generation of “Wolf Warrior” diplomats (taking their label from the Chinese action films) assertively spread them on social media.

For years the Russian media have seeded a general “infodemic” on infectious diseases. The New York Times recently summed up how President Putin has “spread disinformation on issues of personal health for a decade.” EUvsDisinfo has documented how state-funded Russian broadcasting networks, RT and Sputnik, have spread conspiracy theories.

Public Messaging, Hidden Disinformation

These dueling interpretations, narratives and accusations have at least been attributed. Alas, there are other nasty things going on. In February, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center shared its analysis of “the full Russian ecosystem of official state media, proxy news sites, and social media personas” with the media.

Agence France Presse’s Feb. 22 report provided details: “Thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts” are engaged in “a coordinated effort to spread alarm.” Russian “claims that have been circulating in recent weeks include allegations that the virus is a U.S. effort to ‘wage economic war on China,’ that it is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA or part of a Western-led effort ‘to push anti-China messages.’ U.S. individuals including … Bill Gates … have also been falsely accused of involvement in the virus.”

Since August 2019, ProPublica has tracked more than 10,000 suspected “fake,” “hijacked” and “zombie” Twitter accounts “involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government.” The wide-ranging report by Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li revealed the use of social media, fake profile photos and usernames, “changed handles,” bots, hacking of accounts, disinformation, an “interlocking group of accounts,” conspiracy theories, spamming, use of contractors and “a chorus of approving comments from obviously fake accounts.”

Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg and Julian Barnes of The New York Times provided more details: “Intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms … the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones.”

Strategic Designs

The Chinese and Russian informational offensives draw from the same model—the use of internal and external propaganda in the 20th-century communist party-state. (The role of the Comintern in shaping the Communist Party of China in the 1920s is too often forgotten.) Understanding the two nations’ strategic designs and methods is a necessary first step for public diplomacy.

During the Cold War, the Soviet party-state launched many hostile “active measures” campaigns that trafficked in crude lies: the AIDS virus was created at the U.S. Army laboratory at Fort Detrick and was engineered as an “ethnic weapon”; the 1978 mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, were a CIA plot; Americans adopted children from Central America in order to harvest their body parts; among others.

From the time of Sun Tzu, China has had its own history of integrating deception and manipulation into its strategic thought.

The Kremlin’s continuing use of “active measures” also draws on centuries of Russian military thinking on deception—maskirovka. The Center for European Policy Analysis reports that Russia uses “disinformation, incitement to violence and hate speech to destroy trust, sap morale, degrade the information space, erode public discourse and increase partisanship.” Oscar Jonsson of the Stockholm Free World Forum adds that Russian leaders conceive information warfare as having two parts: information-technical and information-psychological, perhaps parallel to “cyber” and “influence” in American thinking.

From the time of Sun Tzu, China has had its own history of integrating deception and manipulation into its strategic thought. During the Korean War, it accused the United States of conducting “germ warfare” in North Korea and northeast China. (The campaign was decisively debunked when historians gained access to Soviet copies of the communications among North Korea, China and Russia after the end of the Cold War.) In this century, the Chinese concept of Three Warfares—psychological warfare, media warfare and lawfare—frame Beijing’s strategic use of disinformation.

Although China and Russia, over the years, worked from different templates, the NYT’s Wong, Rosenberg and Barnes reported that China has now “adopted some of the techniques mastered by Russia-backed trolls, such as creating fake social media accounts to push messages to sympathetic Americans, who in turn unwittingly help spread them.” According to Senator Angus King (I-Maine), the goal is “spreading division.”

The Way Ahead

Disinformation about COVID-19 is today’s challenge, but every future administration will also face disinformation. In the past, many thought of U.S. public diplomacy as an instrument of soft power. It now must counter what the National Endowment for Democracy labels “sharp power” that “pierces, penetrates or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries.” The surge of malign disinformation suggests PD needs to be recharged, and it must join whole-of-government policy deliberations at the highest level.

Cyber operations and ideas. Every government department, organization and social media company is now intensely focused on cyber security, defending (or attacking) networks, channels of transmission and data. What is popularly called “hacking” is a form of espionage, extracting intelligence—from war plans and financial data to confidential emails—or manipulating perceptions of such data. Still, this is only one side of what’s going on.

The other side is the ideas that flow on the networks, whether digital or through social connections. Ideas embrace logic, argument, theory, beliefs, judgment, interpretation, premises, norms and values. It is ideas that make the case for other nations to partner with the United States to address global issues like terrorism or climate change; the benefits of trade and development; security of the sea lanes; and many others. Public diplomacy’s traditional media and exchange programs must, then, continue, even expand. They advance understanding of the United States, its government and society, and American ideas.

Few individuals have the specialized education bridging both the cyber operations and the ideas realms. This means that a comprehensive response to disinformation requires the collaboration of cyber experts and those who know foreign—especially Chinese and Russian—societies, cultures, languages, foreign policy and strategic concepts. Foreign Service officers at the Global Engagement Center model this kind of collaboration, and when they again are posted overseas, embassy country teams gain from their firsthand experience combating disinformation.

The need for speed. Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Information Lieutenant General Loretta Reynolds emphasizes: “In the win/loss analysis of the Information Age, what matters is not the big that eat the small; it’s the fast that eat the slow.” Public diplomacy is well aware of the insight that “lies sprint while the truth walks.” On the pandemic, the Bureau of Global Public Affairs is giving embassies and consulates more and faster guidance to allow them to recognize and respond to disinformation, without having to pre-clear every tweet or statement with Washington.

An informational “enterprise.” Enterprise thinking is “the practice of considering the entire enterprise in decision-making, not just a given group or department,” according to Adam McClellan in “The Art of Enterprise Thinking.” Many departments and agencies—State, Defense, Homeland Security and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, among them—have roles to play in the coming information contests. And the government’s instruments of informational power are also divided by function—public affairs, public diplomacy, international broadcasting and the armed forces’ operations in the information environment.

State’s Global Engagement Center has a statutory mandate to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” Four regional threat teams (for China/North Korea, Russia, Iran, and Counterterrorism) are complemented by two more teams for analytics and research and for digital outreach. The GEC’s active program of grants and cooperative agreements supports local independent media, gathers examples of disinformation and propaganda, analyzes foreign information warfare and provides support.

Still, the different departments, agencies and functions all have different tasks, boundaries, authorities and funding streams, so achieving unity of action—or an even more modest “alignment” of activities—is and will be a work in progress. The need will only become more acute as artificial intelligence makes chat bots and deepfakes more effective, as use of the disinformation playbook proliferates, and as big data facilitates micro-targeting of messages to individuals.

Enterprise thinking can address this problem. Initial “enterprise” initiatives could include sending students from the different corners of the enterprise to each other’s schoolhouses and conferences. Role players from all four informational communities should join exercises, wargames and simulations. In the long run, the informational enterprise must have a champion on the National Security Council staff.

Enterprise thinking can be local, too. At an embassy implementing the goals in its Integrated Country Strategy, an “enterprise” approach would help assure cooperation among all the embassy sections with information, awareness, outreach, education and exchange programs.

“The last three feet” overseas. A wise PD mentor once told me, “When in doubt, just explain.” It’s still good advice for practitioners at embassies and consulates, and COVID-19 is a good subject. Citizens of other nations often learn of the United States from television and social media clips—some sensationalized, some partisan, all too short. Providing facts and context can temper conjecture. Explaining how the executive and legislative branches both play roles, how power is divided between federal and state governments, how social distancing works in different places, how the media communicate best practices, how Americans value privacy and how not every speech or press conference becomes a law, for instance, hopefully conveys confidence in America’s democratic responses.

Francesco Sisci, an Italian journalist in Beijing, says bluntly, “The ongoing pandemic has also started a massive propaganda war.” It “could spin out of control with unfathomable consequences.” It’s time to understand the new information environment, the pacing threats, strategies, and the roles of cyber operations and ideas. It’s time for speed, cooperation and enterprise—and for leadership.

A Foreign Service officer for 31 years, Donald M. Bishop led U.S. public diplomacy programs in China, Afghanistan and other nations. He is now the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. This article is also available on the website of the Public Diplomacy Council, with full citations.