US conspiracy-mongers, QAnon accounts spread ‘infodemic’ tweets against China, research finds
Published: Jun 05, 2020 06:03 PM

Photo: Screenshot of Twitter

A new study has revealed Twitter accounts of Trump supporters and US conspiracy-mongers endorsing the QAnon movement are at the center of a coordinated astroturfing campaign to spread rumors about the coronavirus, particularly the conspiracy theory that China created the virus as a bioweapon. This unverified accusation repeatedly embraced by the US president and his administration has led many to suspect the far-right motivations behind the coordinated Twitter campaign. 

A recent report released by the Australia Institute's Centre for Responsible Technology found the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an "infodemic," a term the World Health Organization defines as spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus. The institute's research team analyzed 2.6 million tweets and 25.5 million retweets that used coronavirus-related hashtags on Twitter over 10 days starting from late March 2020.

The coordinated efforts to promote the "Chinese bioweapon" conspiracy theory focused on 882 original tweets, which were retweeted 18,498 times and liked 31,783 times, reaching an estimated 5 million Twitter users. Similar research in January suggested there is a highly sustained and coordinated effort to promote this theory by pro-Trump, Republican and QAnon accounts, though highly suspected to be bot-like accounts, according to the research.

Many of these conspiracy theories also frequently oppose the rise of China as a global power, 5G mobile network construction and vaccine development efforts funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many of them can be marked as anti-Chinese accounts with posts criticizing the Communist Party of China (CPC) in addition to posting other racist and hate speech content.

Analysts suggest the goal of those rumor-mongers is to sow confusion, further exacerbate political divisions both within and between countries, and erode the public's trust in democratic and scientific institutions.

Who is behind China-bashing

Dr Timothy Graham, one of the authors of the recently released report co-written with Graham's colleagues Professor Axel Bruns and Guangnan Zhu from Queensland University of Technology, told the Global Times on Thursday that he was amazed by the overwhelming evidence for coordinated amplification of the "China bioweapon" conspiracy theory from self-identified right-wing and conservative accounts on Twitter.

Of the 30 most important clusters of co-retweet activity, 28 of those were either pro-Trump, Republican and politically conservative, or QAnon accounts.

QAnon is one of the most dangerous US-made conspiracy theories since 2017 that concocted medical disinformation and downplayed scientific logic and the overall severity of COVID-19.

A participant of the demonstrations against novel coronavirus measures wears a warning vest with "QAnon" written on it in May in Essen of Germany. Photo: AFP

QAnon conspiracy theorists believe there is a secret plot by an alleged "deep state" against US President Donald Trump and his supporters. They believe the political elites of the "deep state" are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they regard as the only hope to wipe out the deep state. They tend to oppose entities opposed to Trump and perceive China as a threat.

The QAnon conspiracy theory aligns with their broader narrative the coronavirus was planned by the so-called "deep state," as a new tool to damage Trump's presidency and his reelection campaign, according to media reports. 

"It is possible that QAnon members rallied together to coordinate the spread of the China bioweapon conspiracy on Twitter," said Graham, the author of the report.

This paints a fairly clear picture of this kind of misinformation being politicized and weaponized at least in the US, analysts suggested.

Those conspiracy theorists aim to mislead public perceptions of other countries, or even nurture a hatred sentiment against China, as many in the US have a very vague understanding of China, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Thursday.

It is very likely there are anti-China forces behind those social media accounts with political purposes to weaken and smear China to serve far-right politicians for their political and economic interests, Li added.

However, Graham stressed these may not necessarily be true Trump supporters, and in some cases may not even be human as the research team saw a small amount of "bot-like" activity, which we define as accounts that co-retweet the same tweets repeatedly within one second of each other. Mostly it was troll-like accounts, or hyper-partisan Trump supporters, QAnon conspirators and generally conservative accounts.

"These accounts explicitly support Trump, but they could well be disinformation campaigners or lone trolls who are exploiting political identities for other reasons," Graham told the Global Times.

The 2016 US presidential election saw how foreign interference campaigns successfully created "pro-Trump" troll accounts, making observers suspect that it's entirely possible that some of these accounts are not in fact real Trump supporters, but instead bots or trolls with malicious motives.

Sinophobic hysteria

Widespread narratives that are related to conspiracy theories over COVID-19 released by ostensibly pro-Trump and pro-QAnon accounts exist partly due to the rumor that the virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been publicly amplified by Republican politicians, observers concluded.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab though it has been widely rejected by the World Health Organization and the world's scientists.

Likewise, on January 27, Republican Congressman Jim Banks tweeted specifically about the "China bioweapon" conspiracy theory by citing an Israeli biological warfare expert, showing support for the falsehood.

Graham told the Global Times he believes that this amplification and support (indirect and direct) by elected officials provides a major factor for such ideas spreading from the fringes into the mainstream.

"It's not a big leap to go from the rumor that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, to further arguing that it was a bioweapon, and perhaps even that it was released on purpose. None of those claims are substantiated," he said.

Widespread conspiracy theories and rumors across Western social media reflect how anti-intellectualism prevails among the US public, said Li.

"Once the mainstream media pick up on these false narratives espoused by elected officials, it's too late - they spread like wildfire and the damage cannot be reversed," Graham said. "I believe social media platforms need to work harder to detect and remove coordinated mis- and disinformation."

"In many ways, this particular conspiracy theory has been very damaging for foreign relations between China and other countries - this is a terrible loss, as we all have shared goals and can benefit so much from good will, exchanges of culture and trade opportunities," Graham said.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on Monday, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP