Disinformation Strains US-China Tensions and Vaccine Progress


June 25, 2020


Rising online engagement with Chinese coronavirus disinformation indicates a new front in the rapidly escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, while a rise in attention to anti-vaccination and alternative medicine themes may undermine recent advances in vaccine development.

Decline in Disinformation Engagement Reverses

After trending downward for months, global engagement with coronavirus disinformation increased more than 10% between July 10 and July 26, though it still remains below the mid-March peak, when social distancing restrictions were imposed across the United States and Europe.

Consulate Clash Drives Attention to PRC Narratives

Helping drive the global trend, attention increased to a number of Chinese government disinformation themes on July 22, when the U.S. State Department ordered the closure of the PRC’s consulate in Houston, Texas. Most notably, attention increased across multiple languages—including Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish—to U.S. unilateralism and controversial foreign policy issues, such as the 1999 accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. Chinese government propaganda has referenced these themes when criticizing U.S. global leadership during the pandemic.

Additionally, Chinese-language attention to U.S. bioweapons conspiracies spiked in the days after the Houston consulate closure, reaching its highest level since early May, when senior U.S. officials claimed the coronavirus may have originated in a Wuhan laboratory. Chinese government propaganda has amplified claims that the virus may instead be a U.S. bioweapon spread by the U.S. military. Beijing may be re-amplifying this narrative to retaliate for the Houston consulate closure, in addition to closing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.

Disinformation Tarnishes Vaccine Advances

Even as researchers in the United States and UK announced positive Phase I trial results for coronavirus vaccine candidates, disinformation related to health authorities has gained traction. In the week after the results were published, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Persian, and Hindi speakers paid more attention to alternative medicine than they had in several weeks. Globally, interest in anti-vaccination themes reached its highest point since the ‘Plandemic’ video went viral in May.

This trend bodes ill for public acceptance of a vaccine once it is available. Should distrust in vaccines worsen, public health authorities will face immense difficulty achieving herd immunity, which experts say is necessary to resume normal economic activity.

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