China and Russia are promoting “false narratives” on social media that blame the West for the coronavirus pandemic while casting their countries as best-equipped to deal with the crisis, U.S. officials say.
That message was voiced in Brussels on May 6 during a telephone press conference given by acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker and U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center Lea Gabrielle.
Gabrielle said Russia in particular was peddling conspiracy theories that blame the United States for the virus, which has infected more than 3.6 million people globally and killed over 258,000.
“Just to name some of Russia’s most critically harmful narratives — they’ve been using false narratives that the COVID-19 was produced by the U.S. as a bio-weapon. They’ve pushed out the false narrative that the U.S. and other Western governments have used efforts to contain [the outbreak] as part of a scheme to increase government control over their populations,” Gabrielle explained.
She added that both Russia and China had tried to “push out false narratives” that the two countries “are global leaders in containing the virus, while the EU, NATO, and the U.S. are either unwilling or incapable of addressing” the epidemic.
Reeker said Russia had been engaging in such disinformation campaigns for some time.
He said Washington, as well as NATO, was paying more attention to the “cyber-realm” as it becomes a growing threat.
Gabrielle said China, where the coronavirus was first detected in December, was focusing on shaping the “global narrative” and “deflect[ing] blame” for the pandemic.
“So, we’ve now seen concerted efforts by Beijing to push conflicting theories about COVID-19 that are intended to sow doubt, to deflect blame, and to create the idea that it may not be possible to know the truth,” Gabrielle said.
China is also “trying to push the narrative that it’s superior to the West in responding to global health crises,” she added.
Reeker also addressed the decision by President Donald Trump to suspend U.S. funding of the World Health Organization (WHO), a move criticized by world leaders. In making the announcement on April 15, Trump said the UN agency had “failed in its basic duty” in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“What we did was we had some great concerns about the WHO, how it’s been used, and how it has failed in many aspects in dealing with this pandemic. That’s not a new thing, there have been numerous efforts to reform the WHO just in the past decade. But WHO has done many good things around the world, of course, and the U.S. has been the largest funder of the WHO,” Reeker said.
“So what we did was suspend payments at this point while we review exactly what has gone on there to make sure that certainly our money — but, frankly, everybody else’s — is going to be used correctly and make the most of our investments into the health sector, particularly when it comes to COVID-19,” he explained, stressing Washington would remain “very engaged” in battling the coronavirus.
Below is a full rush transcript of the Press Briefing by Ambassador Philip T. Reeker Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and Lea Gabrielle State Department U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center.
Ambassador Reeker: Well, I’m really pleased I could connect with Europe particularly this week, at least virtually. We had a lot of plans to register and commemorate VE Day, which is almost 75 years almost to the day, when we together defeated fascism in Europe at the end of World War II. Of course, a lot of those things have had to be rescheduled or done in a different way, but now we face a different kind of enemy – of course, this virus. And in fact, the depths of our transatlantic partnership, what we’ve built on over these 75 years has helped us find ways not only to repatriate citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, but to share information about the virus and resources to facilitate the immediate crisis response and look at other complex issues.
I think it’s important to know that despite the pandemic, we continue to move forward on transatlantic relations, on our broad agenda, things like North Macedonia joining NATO as the 30th member. We’ve recently nominated an ambassador to Belarus for the first time in years. The European Union has invited more countries to open accession negotiations. And so in the big picture, the history we’ve created marches on and we’re looking very carefully about how we coordinate revitalization of our economies, how we restart as we come through this corona crisis.
I mention the history because history is, I think, vitally important. We’ve been looking ahead and there have been efforts, certainly on the part of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to rewrite some of the history and those narratives, and in some ways it’s an unprecedented challenge because when we see what’s going on with the coronavirus, the lack of transparency also creates space for disinformation and rewriting narratives, and that’s what the topic of today’s briefing is about.
I’ll just mention that the United States continues to be the largest contributor to global health security. For over half a century we’ve built a foundation upon which much of the global health system is based, contributing over $140 billion in health assistance just in the last two decades alone. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. Government has committed over $775 million in assistance specifically aimed at fighting the pandemic, including to many countries in need in Europe. Of course, Americans don’t provide aid just through our government, but it’s sort of an all-of-America approach, which is important to keep in mind as we help each other and people around the world, the generosity of private businesses, our nonprofit groups and foundations, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations.
Together, I think the figure now is around $4 billion in donations and assistance from the nongovernmental sector, private citizens and foundations, in addition to what the U.S. Government’s provided. We are also leading the effort to help develop a vaccine to end the pandemic. That, of course, is a global, multinational effort with shared information around the world. And I think we’ve already pledged to contribute several billion dollars to the COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic development.
Of course, our European partners are doing their part. We have a very robust dialogue from a diplomatic standpoint. At the State Department, our Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun leads a group of transatlantic partners, colleagues in reviewing issues in a phone call every week, and then working with their teams to address these issues ranging from the immediate needs and comparing notes on what’s happening with the virus in our countries, but also looking at the economic side, coordinating how we will work together to restart the global economy in a robust way. And one of the main themes in that conversation, which involves counterparts from not only the U.S. and Canada, but France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and we also have the EU and NATO deputies involved – one of the main themes has been the challenge of disinformation in this. And we are dedicated, all of us together, to continue to counter the use of disinformation, and share accurate and timely information about the COVID-19 situation as part of our condition of transparency and in terms of democratic governance and the values of our free societies.
Ms. Gabrielle: For those who aren’t familiar with the Global Engagement Center, I want to make sure that you understand what our mission is. So the GEC’s mission is to lead and coordinate the efforts of the U.S. Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation that’s aimed at undermining the interests of the U.S. and our allies and our partners. And with the current global health crisis, with COVID, we really see that this underscores the serious threats that are posed by disinformation and propaganda campaigns that are pushed by malign actors.
And as we know from experience both in the U.S. and in Europe, there are nations that turn to disinformation as a weapon, and they don’t hesitate to use it, even at the most sensitive and the most critical times, like right now when we’re all working together to try to meet this common challenge that COVID has presented. So I want to keep my remarks brief and make sure that we have the maximum time possible for questions, but I do want to make three points for you about disinformation and COVID.
So the first is that we believe that both governments and the public really need to be aware of the direct threat that disinformation is presenting to our collective effort to be able to deal with COVID. Russian disinformation networks have tried to advance Moscow’s destabilizing foreign policy goals of creating confusion in our democratic societies, and that’s just the last thing that any of us need right now.
Based on what we’ve seen from the Russian disinformation ecosystem historically, there’s a good chance that they’re going to continue to do this as we see the situation with COVID developing. And just for example, if I could go all the way back to the Soviet Union, but even if we only just talk about the use of disinformation on health issues by the modern Russian Federation, their track record is clear.
You can look at the issues of Ebola to Zika to 5G, and the Russian disinformation ecosystem that the Kremlin has helped to build has consistently exploited fear and confusion, or just exploited the general lack of understanding of an issue to both create and to amplify dangerous narratives. And all of this has been well documented by the U.S. Government, by the fantastic work of some of our partners like the European External Action Service Strategic Communications Unit, and multilateral efforts like the G7 rapid response mechanisms, as well as, it’s been documented by other researchers, and by leading media like yourselves.
The State Department has been working since the early days of COVID to expose Russian tactics and those of other malign actors. My organization, the GEC, is monitoring these disinformation efforts from a variety of actors, and we’re constantly working to share that information with our global partners, including many in Europe, because we want to be able to develop countermeasures together. But I think it’s still hard for us sometimes to anticipate the use of this tactic, because it’s just so contrary to our own values. And that’s why I want to send a clear message to you today that based on their track record, we do expect there’s a high probability that the Russian disinformation ecosystem will act to undermine faith in a COVID vaccine when it becomes available. We’ve seen this in the past, and they’ll likely do this by introducing false information of their own and by amplifying local voices that push conspiracy theories. We see this time and time again.
This is highly irresponsible behavior. It’s a public health threat, and the GEC will continue to expose these tactics and help U.S. allies and partners build resiliency, both now, during the COVID situation, and as we move into the future.
And the second point I want to make is on the PRC. Previously there was really only limited documentation and public discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of bots, trolls, and other Russian-style tactics against audiences outside of China. But as we’ve seen during the COVID crisis, it’s underscored the length that the CCP is willing to go to in an attempt to control global narratives. So we’ve now seen concerted efforts by Beijing to push conflicting theories about COVID-19 that are intended to sow doubt, to deflect blame, and to create the idea that it may not be possible to know the truth. China is also trying to push the narrative that it’s superior to the West in responding to global health crises.
The CCP’s decades-long effort to control information within China is well-documented. But unfortunately, general populations are not aware enough of this. And now censorship and silencing of voices within and into China is matched by efforts to push propaganda and disinformation across a massive global information ecosystem, including on platforms that are blocked within China. And this results in a one-way megaphone from the CCP to the world.
General populations may not realize this when they see CCP officials or CCP narratives on platforms that are used in open societies. These are one-way megaphones from China, and it’s important for general populations to realize this. And it’s critical that like-minded countries and free societies call out Beijing’s use of disinformation and propaganda and its one-way megaphone during this crisis to prevent these behaviors from becoming the norm for Beijing.
I’ll close by saying that one of the outcomes of the increased focus on disinformation in the context of COVID is that there’s been an acceleration of cooperation between democratic countries encountering this threat, and that’s especially true for the United States and our European allies. And as Ambassador Reeker mentioned, this the year of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. It’s important to note that we have a long history of coming together in the most challenging circumstances, and this is one of those times. And specifically on fighting disinformation, our cooperation has never been closer.
So our experts on this topic are in touch on a daily basis to be able to share analysis and coordinate on countermeasures. And any actors that seek to undermine the solidarity of democratic societies should really understand that we are resolved and that we will not allow their tactics to undermine us and our joint response to COVID now or in the future. So thanks for the opportunity to be here and answer your questions, and now Phil and I will be happy to take some of those questions.
Question: As you know, Russia sent a military mission to Italy to help with the coronavirus. The Italian prime minister told that the allies were informed about this mission coming to Italy. I would like to ask you if the U.S. Government was informed in advance that nine military planes and 140 soldiers from Russia were coming to Italy to help for coronavirus, and what do you think about the objective of this mission?
Ambassador Reeker: I think we’ve all looked to every source for help and assistance where we can get it. We’ve offered assistance to Russia. Russia’s offered assistance to others. I think we have a very good and robust communication with Italy. As you’re aware, the President announced a very major package of support for Italy, which was so hard-hit, particularly in the north, by the corona pandemic. And our strong relationship as allies, NATO partners – a big part of that.
I’d have to refer you to specifics on the timetable for the Russians that brought aid with their aircraft and others, but what I do know is that we have a strong and robust alliance, of which Italy, of course, is a founding member and an important part of that. And NATO is doing a lot to support sourcing of material, airlift and transport, construction of emergency hospitals, et cetera, in the region. And I’m just pleased to see that there seems to be some promising signs in Italy of moving past the first peak, anyway, in this pandemic. But I’d have to refer you to Italian authorities on specific timetables for any of the engagement with Russia.
Question: Is the U.S. concerned about Russian and Chinese influence in Serbia, and has that influence increased since the COVID-19 pandemic breakout? And relatedly, Russian and Chinese fake news operations, especially those concerning COVID-19, destabilize the Balkans in general and Serbia in particular. Did you notice any of those in Serbia?
Ambassador Reeker: We are increasingly looking at the Western Balkans and Southeastern Europe as a coherent strategic space where people have broadly taken a decision to look west and to engage with the European Union in the case of many countries, like North Macedonia joining NATO, but finding themselves now competing with certain malign actors, Russians and Chinese, we wish to compete for that influence in a positive fashion. We believe the countries and peoples of the Western Balkans are making their own choices about where they want to look, what their goals are in engagement.
In terms of that, the specific challenges there with Russian and Chinese influences, Lea may be able to address it as well. It is an ongoing problem, something that we’ve seen before. Disinformation is a key piece of that, and it’s something that we’ll continue to work on together with other partners.
Ms. Gabrielle: I think it’s important to understand that this is not just a regional issue when it comes to fake news and disinformation. What we’ve seen from Russia is that it’s propagated and amplified harmful disinformation on the COVID-19 crisis across regions and around the world. And we’re seeing that from the CCP as well. And just to name some of Russia’s most critically harmful narratives, they’ve been false narratives that COVID-19 was produced by the U.S. as a bioweapon. They have pushed out the false narrative that the U.S. and other Western governments have used efforts to contain as part of a scheme to increase government control over their populations. They have tried to push out false narratives that Russia and China are global leaders in containing the virus while the EU, NATO, and the U.S. are either unwilling or incapable of addressing the problem.
And all of these narratives are baseless and they’re deliberately harmful to our collective efforts to contain the virus and to ensure a return to public health and to get economies around the world back open and thriving. So I think it’s important to recognize that this is – this is really a global issue when it comes to the disinformation and propaganda that we’re seeing from Russia as well as from the CCP.
Question: We have seen in 2016 and 2018, along with disinformation efforts of Russia are dire cyber threats to different sovereign systems in the United States. Do we see them now? And how vulnerable is the United States’ medical system, for example, for computer attacks from malign and malicious actors?
And my second question – You mentioned a very important thing that disinformation from Russia and China, specifically from Russia, is trying – will try, maybe will try – to undermine trust to a vaccine. Do you see it already? So we’re from – you got this – how to say – feeling that it will happen?
Ambassador Reeker: I think it does underscore the fact that the cyber realm has become a critical part of our focus in defense. We are dealing with hybrid threats, and cyberspace is part of that. NATO recognized this, certainly, in recent years, and added that focus, with the leaders meeting last year to focus on cyber as a realm and a threat. And it underscores what we’ve been saying for a long time, too, about the importance of networks and infrastructure, trusted vendors both here at home, but we’re sharing this, of course, with our friends and allies. And that’s an issue we’ve been concerned about. Where does the infrastructure of our networks come from? As the technology increases, so do the threats. And it’s something we are keenly aware of and working on in coherence with our partners, particularly through NATO and other transatlantic contacts.
Ms. Gabrielle: On the cyber issue, I think it’s important to realize that we’re dealing with actors that employ a number of different tactics, and there are, of course, cyber-enabled disinformation operations.
But to your other question about the potential for the Russian Federation to undermine a vaccine and what we’re seeing, there’s a lot of examples of Russia engaging in disinformation about prior health issues. So it’s a well-known tactic. Most recently we’ve seen elements of the Russian disinformation ecosystem pushing baseless conspiracy theories about 5G, as we’ve seen the New York Times recently document. The GEC is also currently observing Russian-linked social media accounts pushing disinformation about Bill Gates. We look at statements from Russian officials and coverage in state-funded media; there’s numerous examples. Look back to 2016. And I’m talking about numerous examples around health issues. Look back to 2016: an aide to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev at the time falsely suggested that the U.S. could have been infecting mosquitoes with the Zika virus in the Black Sea as a form of biological warfare against Russia.
Ms. Gabrielle: And then in 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov suggested that the U.S. may have played a role in the spread of Zika and Ebola. So there’s also, in terms of what we’re seeing now and what I can talk about that I’m seeing now, there’s the longstanding campaign where Russia consistently pushes numerous false allegations about U.S.-funded efforts to find solutions, so the U.S.-funded Cooperative Biological Engagement Program and Biological Threat Reduction Program, which works with more than two dozen countries worldwide to improve biosafety and biosecurity and to improve disease surveillance.
In the current situation, we’re already seeing Russia attacking the very infrastructure that could actually help countries deal with the challenge. So we can look at the past to help us better understand what might happen in the future.
Question: Isn’t it a contradiction on the one hand praising the U.S. health programs, as you did in the beginning, and almost at the same moment punishing the WHO through leaving the organization and stopping the payments, rather than criticizing, and through that maybe improving the praxis, as it is normal international behavior?
Mr. Reeker: I think it’s highly responsible. What we have said was we have got some great concerns about the WHO, how it’s been used, and how it has failed in many aspects in dealing with this pandemic. That’s not a new thing. There have been numerous efforts to reform the WHO just in the past decade. The WHO has done many good things around the world, of course, and the U.S. has been the largest funder of the WHO.
So what we did was suspend payments at this point while we review exactly what has gone on there to make sure that certainly our money, but frankly, everybody else’s, is going to be used correctly and make the most of our investments into the health sector, particularly when it comes to COVID-19. So this is an ongoing review. We continue to be very engaged in terms of every aspect of the COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, funding and investing in that. We’ll continue to look at the WHO and the failed leadership in this crisis, and how we move ahead and, I’m sure, continue to be the single largest health and humanitarian donor in the world, but working very closely with all of our partners, particularly in the transatlantic space.
Question: Ambassador Reeker, first to you, two data points on U.S.-EU relations right now. European Union is pushing back on calling for the kind of investigation into China and the origins of the virus that the U.S. and Australia are calling for, and the U.S. did not attend the EU-sponsored vaccine donors conference the other day. So are the U.S. and the EU on the same page when it comes to COVID?
And to Special Envoy Gabrielle, I noticed early in May that the Chinese were talking again about the conspiracy theory that the U.S. military was connected to the beginnings of COVID-19. Of course, we noticed that there was supposed to be a ceasefire about that. In retrospect, did the Chinese ever stop spreading that conspiracy theory?
Ambassador Reeker: Well, thanks for that question, because there’s always an effort and a fascination with trying to find differences in the dialogue and discussion across the Atlantic. We are in touch and in contact with the EU every day. I mean, I have contacts with our EU counterparts every single day, and so much of it these days of course about COVID, so many aspects of it, the immediate challenges, the longer-term challenges, economic, our finance ministers, central banks, et cetera, working together on how we emerge from this on the economic and financial front.
We continue to put up enormous amounts of money for the vaccine effort, for other efforts together. We made clear our concerns about the WHO. I think lots of others have recognized that. We do believe there needs to be a continued investigation into the origins of this virus and the pandemic. We still don’t have full access, we still don’t have transparency from the Communist Party in China. That’s going to be important and necessary. So we can do multiple things at the same time – that is, deal with what we need to do on the vaccine front, on the daily challenges of the pandemic, and also look at how we can do things better.
A lot of our conversations already are looking at lessons learned so that we can apply them as we continue in this challenge, and of course for future challenges. And I think that the U.S. and the EU will continue to be the closest of partners. In doing that, we have to take advantage of every channel of connectivity at every level to deal with this challenge, and that’s what, frankly, we’ve done for the past 75 years really in building institutions and creating the opportunities and leadership we have.
Ms. Gabrielle: I just didn’t get a chance to speak on the question about the World Health Organization. I just need to briefly say that the gentleman who asked the question used the word “punish,” and I just want to say no, the goal is for the world to heal and for the generosity of the American people to simply get to the organizations that are going to best use it and be best placed to heal the world. So I just wanted to add that.
On the question of Chinese disinformation, CCP disinformation, the goal really has been to deflect blame, and the second part of the goal from the CCP has been to try to reshape the global narrative to place the Chinese Communist Party’s system as the best leader in the recovery.
So as to whether or not we saw some of the conspiracy theories about military – or the U.S. military, et cetera, stop during the ceasefire, what we’ve seen is PRC officials continue to cast doubt on Wuhan as the origin of COVID-19, including even misusing scientific research to support these efforts. And we’ve seen them cite known conspiracy websites to try to suggest that U.S. demands for transparency aren’t based on legitimate concerns.
Just last week we saw PRC-linked accounts raise concerns about the safety and purposes of U.S. biosafety labs in former Soviet Union states, mainly to try to take attention away from concerns about the labs in Wuhan. We’ve seen PRC-linked accounts also continue to push a global propaganda campaign on Beijing’s international cooperation and assistance on COVID-19 using seemingly benign and positive messages to try to appeal to local audiences.
So this content is intended to convey that only the PRC’s handling of the crisis is a model for others and that the PRC is superior to other democracies, including the U.S., in responding to global health crises despite the fact that Beijing’s lack of transparency and accountability really enabled this pandemic.
And also there’s well-documented reports by researchers around the world, including my own team at the GEC, on how many of these efforts are being supported by networks of bots now. So it goes back to the CCP, number one, trying to deflect blame and, number two, trying to reshape that global narrative to try to place the CCP as the best system to lead the response.
Ambassador Reeker: if I could add one more thing onto what Lea was saying in terms of the question about the WHO. It’s worth reminding folks that the WHO leadership itself has acknowledged that the WHO has areas for improvement, I think was the term they used. And they’ve spoken openly in the context of the broader WHO reform about the need for member states to hold WHO accountable. So we certainly agree with that and that’s what part of our review is designed to do.