China has weaponized the coronavirus, and not in the way some might think. The Chinese government is running a sophisticated, multi-faceted, and global influence operation to shape the narrative surrounding the coronavirus and use it as a weapon to destabilize America and other Western democracies. To spread panic in the US, Chinese agents pushed the fake story on social media and via text messages that President Trump was about to lock down the entire country. The Chinese government has also unleashed a Twitter propaganda machine that hacks, then hijacks, accounts from America and around the world, to spread coronavirus disinformation. Chinese officials and media also spread the conspiracy theory that the US Army started the coronavirus pandemic. They’re even paying for propaganda ads in mainstream media outlets.
How are US politicians proposing to counter this pernicious information warfare? Are they working to improve partnerships between government and social media platforms, scientists, and American companies to counter disinformation and propaganda, as some experts have suggested? Maybe proposing to increase funding for organizations like the Global Engagement Center at the State Department, which is hard at work countering this flood of false narratives?
Politicians are using China’s malicious influence operations as a bait-and-switch to justify massive increases in Pentagon spending that have little, if any, chance of helping the US win this information war.
Unfortunately, they’re doing none of this. Instead, the most common answer to China’s information operations is the classic and tired response to most of America’s foreign policy problems — we’ll bomb our way out of it. Politicians are using China’s malicious influence operations as a bait-and-switch to justify massive increases in Pentagon spending that have little, if any, chance of helping the US win this information war.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, explained that, “The Chinese Communist Party will try to exploit the world’s weakness in the wake of a virus it unleashed. We cannot allow it to succeed,” in introducing a bill that would provide, “$43 billion in total — for military infrastructure, weapons, and other assets in the Indo-Pacific region.” Though the bill bemoans the fact that “The Chinese Communist Party covered up the outbreak of the pandemic,” none of the funding appears to be directed at countering Chinese misinformation. While the bill does include a worthwhile provision to sanction foreign officials that spread disinformation during international public health crises, the actual funding the bill provides doesn’t address disinformation at all, instead funding Navy ships, Air Force aircraft, and a $3.3 billion bail-out of Pentagon contractors, for example.
Cotton is not alone in using China’s coronavirus disinformation campaign as an irrational justification for increasing the Pentagon’s budget. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee also lamented China, “using dubious data about its own COVID-19 response and its propaganda machine to undermine US leadership and to drive a wedge between the US and its allies and partners,” in announcing a bill to confront China. While the justification was sound, just as with Cotton this was another bait-and-switch. The bill mentions “misinformation and propaganda by malicious actors,” just once and offers absolutely no funding or plan to counter them. The bill does, however, provide the Pentagon with more than $6 billion to buy things like bombs and ammunition.
The problem with this militarized response to China — in addition to billions of dollars in wasteful spending going to the Pentagon, which already has a budget more than one-hundred times the size of the Centers for Disease Control’s — is that the war China is waging right now isn’t on a military battlefield, it’s on our TV, our social media feed, the websites we read, and anywhere else our minds might be manipulated. As Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking wrote, this is “Like War.” US bombs are useless on this battlefield. The longer we think otherwise, the longer we will continue to lose the real war — the information war — that China, Russia, Iran, and many other foreign powers are waging.
And, make no mistake, losing this information war means losing American lives. Civilians are the casualties in this conflict because disinformation can dramatically increase the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. As the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) explained, disinformation, “Can make the health crisis more serious, because it can mislead people into what works and doesn’t work in dealing with the health crisis.” In short, disinformation kills.
Fighting disinformation in the coronavirus era is more than a battle for international influence or protecting democratic processes from foreign interference. Fighting disinformation is now a life or death struggle. It’s incumbent upon every American then, and especially our elected leaders, to act like their lives and the lives of their loved ones depends on fighting disinformation, because it just might.
Ben Freeman is the Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy and author of The Foreign Policy Auction.