State Department Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda Related to COVID-19

Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda Related to COVID-19




MARCH 27, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Okay, this record – excuse me, this phone call, this briefing is going to be on the record and embargoed until the end of the call, please. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world has demonstrated to all of us the critical importance of timely, transparent, and honest information sharing. The United States has taken this mission to heart. Unfortunately, not all global actors have embraced that edict, choosing instead to engage in subterfuge, coverups, and finger-pointing. To help expand on this and explain the dynamic further, we have joining us for this on-the-record briefing Lea Gabrielle, the U.S. special envoy and coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. Lea will begin with some opening remarks and then we’ll take a few questions. Please, again, text Ruben at the number that was provided.

Just another reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. Lea, go ahead with opening remarks, please.

MS GABRIELLE: All right. Well, thank you so very much, Morgan, and good afternoon everyone. Thanks so much for taking the time to join the call today. As Morgan mentioned, we’re going to be discussing foreign adversarial disinformation that’s being spread about the COVID-19 virus.

Before we get into that, I just want to ensure that you all have some general context about the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, or the GEC, as we call it. When the GEC was originally started, it focused solely on the counterterrorism mission, and at the time it was primarily focused on countering the propaganda used by ISIS. Congress through the 2017 National Defense Authorization Bill actually expanded the GEC’s mission that year to include countering disinformation spread by foreign countries that was intended to undermine the U.S. security or policies or that of our partners and our allies, and as you’d imagine, this is a huge expansion of our role and our mandate.

So the GEC then established three new teams, one focused on Russian disinformation, one on Chinese disinformation, and one on Iranian disinformation. And the GEC also has a counterterrorism team that continues to execute our original counterterrorism mission. We also have an analytics and research team with around 25 data scientists, also analysts and subject matter experts, so that we can use data science and make sure that we are taking a data-driven approach to all of our work. And we also have a technology engagement team that conducts outreach to different technology capabilities so that we are convening the interagency and the U.S. Government on capabilities that are being developed and those capabilities can be assessed. We have an ability to do a deeper dive on assessments of technologies being developed through a technology test bed, and we also use our technology engagement team to do outreach and coordination with different technology platforms, including the social media platforms.

So now that I’ve given you some very quick overview of what our team looks like, to get into the purpose of today’s call of course about the disinformation we’re seeing spread by foreign countries about the COVID-19 virus, I should first just let you know that since January the GEC has been tracking narratives promoted by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian-sponsored sites or different platforms related to the coronavirus. And one of our main responsibilities at the GEC is to keep the State Department leadership as well as the interagency and our partners informed so that they understand what we’re seeing in the global information landscape. So this gives our leadership a fuller picture so that they can continue to make well-informed decisions as we’re trying to tackle this issue.

In this case, it also positions the GEC to take actions to expose adversarial false narratives publicly to help audiences understand the need to be vigilant about the threat of disinformation. Over a month ago the GEC alerted the global public to the widespread disinformation campaign that the Kremlin launched in late January focusing on COVID-19. So through information – and I’m sorry, I’m getting another call, so just let me pause and decline that one for a second. So – I’m sorry. As I was saying, a month ago the GEC alerted the global public to what we were seeing from the Kremlin, where it had launched a disinformation campaign around COVID-19. Through information that we provided to the fact-checking center at AFP, the GEC detailed how the full Russian ecosystem of official state media, proxy news sites, and social media personas have been pushing multiple disinformation narratives.

Now, this Russian disinformation campaign is a known Russian tactic of perpetuating disinformation by capitalizing on the chaos and the uncertainty that health scares and pandemics engender, and we are still seeing the Kremlin continue its reckless attempts to propagate disinformation, endangering global health by undermining the efforts of governments; of health agencies and organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus, such as the World Health Organization. We’re also seeing Russia’s ecosystem promoting narratives advanced by China and Iran, often ones that were first advanced by Russia.

And I think we all here are aware at this point that this isn’t just a single act or issue. During the crisis, we’ve seen Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state disinformation and propaganda ecosystems all converge around some disinformation themes intended to promote their own agendas. So on China, over the course of the crisis we’ve monitored a couple of narrative tracks. One is malign disinformation to falsely blame the U.S. as the origin of the coronavirus and the second has been China’s effort to turn the crisis into a news story highlighting supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party in handling the health crisis. What we’ve seen is the CCP mobilizing its global messaging apparatus, which includes state media as well as Chinese diplomats, to push out selected and localized versions of the same overarching false narratives.

I will say that the information space is ever evolving. It’s been very fluid and China’s approach to it has been as well. And while we did see troubling remarks by Chinese officials, I want to stress my team has also recently seen initial indications of messaging refinement away from disinformation by Chinese officials on social media.

Now, in terms of Iran, several news outlets affiliated with Iran have published malicious, false stories alleging that the United States has weaponized the coronavirus, and senior Iranian officials have echoed these false allegations.

Now, just to tell you a little bit about the department’s and the GEC’s response. The State Department has alerted foreign audiences, as I mentioned, to the Russian COVID-19 disinformation campaign as well as others, and I had mentioned that through information provided to the fact-checking center AFP, the GEC detailed how that Russian disinformation ecosystem was operating.

Meanwhile, to counteract other global false narratives coming from state actors, the U.S. Government launched a full spectrum of activities, including public messaging at home and overseas, diplomatic engagement, and promotion of fact-based information to local audiences. So the GEC, working with other State Department offices and private sector partners, is monitoring and tracking propaganda and disinformation in real time that’s coming from state actors, and we’ve worked to ensure that overseas missions have access to information on trending narratives on COVID-19. The GEC also provides foundational knowledge about disinformation narratives for the Bureau of Global Public Affairs to develop its toolkit of responses for all missions around the world.

So I think that that probably gives you a pretty good overview, and I’ll stop there. I just wanted to give you a sense of what we’re seeing as well as a big picture of some of our efforts to expose the disinformation campaigns. The COVID-19 crisis has really provided an opportunity for malign actors to exploit the information space for harmful purposes, and really been providing unnecessary distractions from the global communities focused on this crisis. I think the fact that we’re seeing the Russian, Chinese, and the Iranian state information operations converging around the same disinformation narrative themes about COVID-19 is an important point. It’s something that we’ll be watching and that we’re going to continue to assess.

With that, I’m happy to answer your questions, and I’ll turn it back over to Spokesperson Ortagus.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much, Lea. That was excellent. Just to remind everyone to text Ruben if you have a question. Ruben, I’ll go ahead and let you call them since you everyone. We do have a 3:00 briefing, so we’ll try to get in – please try to ask one question if you can so we can get in as many as possible before we have to get on the other briefing.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Thanks very much. Matt Lee has the first question.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you. I got one question but it’s like two parts, and that is: One, do you have a metric or an ability to tell how successful these disinformation campaigns’ narratives are? And then whether you do or not, how concerned are you that these messages, this false narrative is taking hold? Thank you.

MS GABRIELLE: Thank you for that question. The answer is yes, we do have the ability to assess the information space with a number of different data science capabilities that we have with our analytics and research team to be able to assess the disinformation environment, including how well false narratives are taking hold.

So I just got some information from my team earlier that I think I can probably share. Specifically, we’ve seen some false narratives in Africa that were being used and were being pushed out by Chinese officials, and we’ve seen PRC officials shift from those narratives. We assessed that messaging, that the PRC officials messaging in Africa shows that they may have abandoned that disinformation campaign, specifically saying that coronavirus had originated in the U.S. Now those accusations that we were looking at, we looked at the space from March 13 to 15 on those and they received mostly negative reactions, and then they virtually died back down. So instead, PRC narratives seem to have shifted towards criticizing the U.S. for stigmatizing China and praising China’s actions. But again, we are able to look at kind of how the information environment is changing and what narratives are taking hold through a number of different data science tools.

And then how concerned am I about the messaging? I think that it is really sad to see state actors taking advantage of a global health crisis to try to push their own agendas. I think this is a time when the world is scared and when it’s very inappropriate to be using false narratives to push the individual agendas of state actors. And so I am concerned, but I think that we can all do our part. And I think a very important part of decreasing the vulnerability of audiences is by making them aware of how a disinformation environment can be manipulated, and you all are doing a very important part of that by making the public more aware of how disinformation is being used around COVID-19.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Shaun Tandon with the next question.

QUESTION: Thanks. I was just going to ask if you give some more detail on what you said, which is quite interesting about China moving away from this narrative. You mentioned Africa. Do you see it throughout the world? Do you think that there has been a shift in China with what was alleged with the conspiracy theory of U.S. involvement? And do you still see that at all from the Chinese side? Do you still see it in some places, or has it completely gone? And why do you think it is? You said that perhaps they weren’t getting the response they wanted. Is that the reason, or it was also U.S. pressure or U.S. – the U.S. summoning the ambassador, for example? Why do you think it is that they’ve moved with that? Thanks.

MS GABRIELLE: So I’d really like to stick to what I can best answer to, and I – as far as what the reasons are, that would take a much broader analysis than I’d be able to give from my perspective. But what I can tell you is what we’re seeing in the information space, and that we’ve seen in our most recent assessment China moving away from certain disinformation narratives and rather focusing on its global role in fighting COVID-19.

So I mentioned Africa. The GEC collected and analyzed social media posts from dozens of official Chinese Government and diplomatic accounts in Africa, specifically looking between the 1st of January and the 18th of March. And initially these accounts were silent on COVID-19, but by the end of the reporting period, discussion of COVID-19 accounted for about 60 percent of all posts from those accounts. And then we had seen China focusing on four prominent narratives from our analysis. One was China’s successful containment of the virus. A second was calls for international collaboration. A third was the World Health Organization’s praise of China. And a fourth was China’s economic resilience. Anti-U.S. tweets comprised a small subset, about .88 percent of the sample, and actually, as I mentioned, performed poorly as African audiences essentially rejected the claims that coronavirus had originated in the U.S., and that they also were rejecting claims that the term, quote, “Chinese virus” was a racist reference. They were rejecting that claim. So interestingly, we see that move away that I mentioned of messaging on disinformation, and rather, a refocus on praising China’s actions.

So we’re also seeing something similar in the Western Hemisphere. I’d say almost the same picture as what we’ve seen in Africa. So COVID-19-related topics account for about half of the content pushed by official Chinese accounts since the outbreak in early January in the Western Hemisphere. And we’ve seen China – they are relying on essentially a unified messaging apparatus. The PRC officials that we saw in Africa shifting their narratives, we’ve also seen that happening in Italy as well. So PRC officials have become really active and are showing concerted effort to systematically cater their messages to global audiences using hashtags, increasing their social media followers to convince people that they’re acting responsibly, rather, and providing aid.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Ed Wong from New York Times has the next question.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Thanks. So one question is what you’re seeing – we’re discussing the official counts and the very public statements that have come out and the shift in the narrative. What about more covert channels? Do you think that – there’s been a lot written, obviously, about Russian trolls and Russian bots and accounts that are Russian in origin but disguised as something else. Would China be doing something similar? Like could they be shifting the official narrative, the public narrative, but then in sort of a more gray zone they’re using disguised accounts to push the conspiracy theories or other narratives like that?

MS GABRIELLE: So we are seeing essentially ecosystems being developed by the different state actors that we assess, and those ecosystems use a variety of accounts from the state-sponsored accounts to online platforms. China has used its entire information apparatus that I mentioned earlier on the call, including its – including China’s ambassadors overseas, its state media, and then what we are seeing is this convergence of disinformation between different state actors. So a good example of this is we see Russia and Kremlin platforms pushing out false narratives, those false narratives being repeated by other state actors, including Beijing, and then Russia retweeting them again and pushing them out as though they originally came from those state actors. We saw that specifically – I’ve used an example in the past where Russia was quoting the head of the IRGC with a false narrative, but it’s a false narrative that Russia had originally pushed out. So that’s kind of how it’s working. It’s a convergence that we’re seeing.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Nick Wadhams has the next question.

QUESTION: Thank you. My question is whether you see the convergence in narratives between separate countries – Russia, Iran, China – as an organic thing, or whether there’s anything that leads you to believe there’s actually high-level coordination between the governments of those three countries to push those narratives. Thanks.

MS GABRIELLE: So I really want to just speak to the data that I’m seeing and the assessments that I’ve been able to see, and I can’t – I can’t give an explanation for why. I think that that would require a deeper analysis probably outside the space that I’m working in right now. What I can say is that I’m seeing certain narratives converge. So we’ve seen over the past several weeks a variety of different narratives, and then some become more prominent, and those really take hold and being pushed out by Russia, China, and Iran all around COVID-19.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, next question is Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. How much are you working with private tech companies or private industry to try to combat these narratives? And then separately, we’ve seen Secretary Pompeo speak pretty extensively on China and somewhat on Iran, but less so on Russia. I was wondering if there’s a reason behind that.

MS GABRIELLE: Okay, so the first question was about our outreach with tech companies. So I mentioned earlier in the call we have a technology engagement team. We actually have a liaison that is out in Silicon Valley that can directly work with the different companies and social media platforms, but I would say our effort to connect is very robust. I do think that it’s important to understand that in best practices in countering disinformation, it takes a variety of approaches. And I think sometimes this is confused. We – depending on the situation, there’s just no cookie-cutter approach. We have to look at each situation individually and figure out what the best practices are. And so I think that there is a bit of misconception around this.

Tech companies are looking at their specific platforms, and they have very smart people who have created algorithms and who understand exactly how their platforms work and can best see what’s happening on their own platforms. But our data scientists are looking at the entire disinformation ecosystem, which goes across a number of different social media platforms and, as I’ve mentioned before, include official state platforms, proxy websites, as well as online false personas that cross the boundaries of social media platforms. So we’re looking at the entire picture, but we are certainly working with tech companies as it makes sense to do so.

And then I have to say I think for the second question you asked I (inaudible) —

MS ORTAGUS: I can – yeah, I can answer that, Lea, you don’t – yeah, I just don’t think that that’s based in facts. I think that he’s – he talks about Russia every single time he talks about disinformation. Chinese Government and Iranian Government officials are the ones who have – who were in the past two weeks – their official governments were the ones that were making the most statements, which is probably why they garnered more attention, but there’s never been an interview that I’ve sat in with him where he hasn’t also mentioned Russia. So let’s just make sure that we’re dealing in facts.

Okay. I think we have one last question.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Last question from Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION: Hey guys, thank you. Sorry (inaudible) mute. Thanks for doing this. Lea, I really appreciate this. Two quick ones, sorry. Derek Scissors is out with a accusation today, and we’ve heard it from elsewhere, but I want to (inaudible) specifically that China’s deliberately not measuring the number of COVID patients or deaths. Do you believe that’s true? And I just want to ask —

MS ORTAGUS: That – sorry, Nick, that’s outside her scope. She’s not going to answer that. But you can try another question.

QUESTION: Okay, fine. So the President, as we all saw, tweeted overnight after his conversation with Xi Jinping that “China has been through much and has developed a strong understanding of the virus”; they’re “working closely together.” So how should we see the ongoing efforts that you and others are making to call out Chinese propaganda and misinformation with the idea at least from this tweet that the United States and China are working together and that China has a strong understanding of the virus and is working with the U.S.? Thanks.

MS ORTAGUS: So before Lea answers, you should know it’s not the GEC’s mission to call out Chinese or Iranian or Russian disinformation. That’s my mission, that’s the Secretary’s mission. So that’s not the purpose of the GEC or why the Congress authorized it. But go ahead, Lea, you can answer.

MS GABRIELLE: So thank you, Morgan. And you’re right, the GEC’s mission is to counter foreign-state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation. And so countering takes a variety of different approaches, and sometimes the best approach for a specific disinformation narrative is, as Morgan just described, for herself or another U.S. Government official from an official platform to call it out. But sometimes publicly revealing what we’re seeing is actually counterproductive to higher-level efforts being made to build cooperation, and sometimes it’s a matter of making sure that our policy makers and our leaders are fully informed of what we’re seeing.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks, Lea.