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Report: Chinese agents helped spread rumors about virus lockdowns in the US

Published Apr 22nd, 2020 7:14PM EDT
Coronavirus lockdown
Image: Xinhua/LI XUEREN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
  • Coronavirus hoaxes and myths started circulating pretty quickly last month when the outbreak first exploded in a major way here — one of the hoaxes being a rumor that President Trump was about to institute a dramatic lockdown of the US.
  • Those rumors circulated across social media and tended to be attributed to someone who knows someone who works at a federal agency.
  • However, a new report from The New York Times claims this was the work of Chinese operatives.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Some of you might recall getting panicked texts from friends last month or seeing social media posts that seemed to herald an imminent national lockdown of the US on orders from President Trump. The source was always kind of a vague “my friend who has a cousin who works for Homeland Security” situation.

“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” reads one such message, which you can still find with a Twitter search. “… he said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders. He thinks they will announce before the end of the weekend.” I got one such text myself along these lines from a friend who shall remain nameless, but these rumors — some of which took on an ominous and draconian tone, such as that travel between states was about to be banned — spread so much that federal officials took the extraordinary step of trying to debunk them.

And now a new detail about their provenance has been revealed. It turns out that it was Chinese agents who helped fan the online flames of these coronavirus lockdown hoaxes in the United States.

That’s according to a new report from The New York Times, which attributes this information to six unnamed US officials who said this was a disinformation campaign that Chinese operatives helped boost. Even more alarming, according to the officials: Many of these missives actually showed up as texts to peoples’ cellphones in the US, something these officials had never seen before as part of a disinformation campaign.

These rumors were circulating during the early days of the coronavirus crisis in the US, when information was still hard to come by because things were changing so fast and people still didn’t have a solid understanding of the virus and what the response should be. And while misinformation circulates freely on social media every day of the week, it’s rare to see US officials and agencies weigh in to try and debunk it, risking bringing it more attention:

According to the new report, some of the American officials believe Chinese operatives didn’t create the messages, but rather helped these hoaxes gain wider attention by working instead to amplify them. On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released this statement about the Times’ report: “The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.