Malign actors in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to sow chaos through conspiracy theories — most heinously, the notion that the United States created the disease. This should come as no surprise, as the ruling regimes in these countries want to deflect from their abject failures and rarely miss an opportunity to blame America.

The slanders are outrageous. But such disinformation also risks fatal consequences to the populations that receive it. To combat disinformation, we must identify the sources of deception campaigns, educate the global community and equip foreign governments to combat it.

Beijing’s official outlets, for example, have accused the United States of over-hyping the pandemic for cynical purposes, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman declaring that Washington had “taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions.” American actions, she said, “could only create and spread fear.”

Other regime and regime-friendly outlets went further. The Chinese military portal Xilu.com recently published an article baselessly claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China.”

This is coming from the same Beijing regime that, to distract from the repression it metes out to its people, has accused the CIA of stoking democratic protests in Hong Kong. That Chinese Communists’ instinctive reaction is to displace blame reveals how thin-skinned they are to any criticism of their response.

Russia is another leading voice in the disinformation campaign. American officials have noted the existence of networks of thousands of social media accounts, many reportedly Kremlin-tied, with identical posts, publishing messages claiming that the virus is meant to “wage economic war on China” and propagate “anti-China messages.”

Moscow will take any opportunity it can to create a sense of international disorder, so long as it smears the reputation of the United States. This is nothing new to many Americans, who are personally aware of how Russian actors use disinformation to divide our nation at the ballot box and elsewhere. These efforts span generations; in the 1980s, for example, the Soviets nonsensically accused the US government of causing the AIDS crisis, hindering American efforts to respond to the epidemic.

Unfortunately, we are beginning to see the deadly consequences of these campaigns going global. In Qom, ground zero of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, a prominent cleric accused the United States of introducing the virus “to damage [the city’s] culture and honor.” Disinformation from the Tehran regime is so widespread that even Iranians with normally positive opinions of America note with confidence that America is behind the outbreak.

Iranian propaganda in the form of articles, regime statements and even pro-government political cartoons has routinely accused America of overblowing the dangers posed by the virus for its own benefit. The Iranian people, as a result, have taken few precautionary measures, and the country now suffers one of the world’s worst outbreaks — with its vice president and senior government officials confirmed as infected.

The coronavirus is a truly global pandemic, with a majority of new cases now being reported outside of China. Disinformation campaigns have propagated in tandem, becoming widespread in nations normally friendlier to the United States; a Filipino legislator, for example, recently played a video at a hearing suggesting that the coronavirus is an American bioweapon.

Responsible global powers must come together to fight the coronavirus pandemic and counter malicious, self-serving disinformation campaigns. If we don’t, those propagating these lies could slow efforts to respond — and cost lives.

By Marco Rubio
Senior senator from Florida, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Foreign Relations
Source: NY Post

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