U.S. intelligence officials believe that agents of the Chinese government helped boost fake claims through social media and text messages last month aimed at stoking panic about nationwide lockdowns over the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from The New York Times.
The newspaper cited six intelligence officials, all in different agencies, who said Chinese agents helped spread messages claiming that the Trump administration was planning to impose curfews and would deploy troops to prevent widespread looting and rioting.
The officials are keenly interested in the operation because many of the messages were circulated through text messages.
Two officials told The Times that they do not believe that Chinese operatives created the messages but helped spread them.
The messages, which circulated widely in mid-March, included vague claims of draconian nationwide lockdowns citing sources from the Pentagon, National Security Council or FBI.
Some urged recipients to take money out of their bank accounts and fill up on gas ahead of the purported lockdowns.
“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” read one message cited by The Times. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”
“Just a heads up,” read one message received by The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Just got word from a friend who works for the FBI and National Security Council advising the president. She says that tomorrow POTUS will announce a ‘Stage 1’ government Lockdown.”
“It will most likely be a domestic flight ban, and/or mandatory curfew.”
“She said things are going to be crazy tomorrow, and its probably best to get some serious groceries before the afternoon announcement tomorrow.”
The Trump administration has offered guidelines urging Americans to curtail social gatherings and nonessential business activities but has not ended domestic flights or imposed curfews.
The National Security Council responded to the viral messages on March 15, calling them “FAKE.”
— NSC (@WHNSC) March 16, 2020
According to The Times, U.S. officials said that the Chinese agents likely used WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging platforms to circulate the messages.
One senior American official told the paper that intelligence officers were looking into whether Chinese diplomats in the U.S. helped disseminate the fake messages.
Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined comment when asked about China’s possible involvement in the fake messages.
“The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting,” he told The Times.
The Chinese government has also spread propaganda from its diplomats and government-controlled media outlets deflecting blame for the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan in mid-November 2019.
Zhao got in on the act last month, tweeting that the “US military brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”
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