US officials: Foreign disinformation is stoking virus fears

Published 3:56 pm Monday, March 16, 2020

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WASHINGTON, DC — The Trump administration is alleging that a foreign disinformation campaign is underway aimed at spreading fear in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, three U.S. officials said Monday.

On Sunday, federal officials began confronting what they said was a deliberate effort by a foreign entity to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the virus outbreak. Agencies took coordinated action Sunday evening to deny that any such plans were put in place, as they tried to calm a nation already on edge by disruptions to daily life caused by the virus.

The three U.S. officials did not name the foreign entity they believe to be responsible. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

It was unclear if the disinformation effort was related to administration officials’ complaints in recent days that China was spreading misinformation about the U.S.

Last week, the Pentagon accused the Chinese government of promulgating “false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members.”

At a press briefing Monday, President Donald Trump said he was not ordering a nationwide lockdown. “At this point not nationwide,” he said. He said there were no domestic travel restrictions but “we’re talking about it every day.”

A day earlier, the National Security Council tweeted that “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” The NSC encouraged Americans to follow official government guidance.

States and municipalities have banned large public gatherings, closed schools, bars and restaurants, and advised people to exercise social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued guidance recommending against indoor gatherings larger than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday that Americans should aim to severely curtail leaving their homes, but he did not indicate the government would order such a move. He was specifically questioned on whether he’d like to see a “national lockdown.”

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Also on Monday, national security officials said there had been a “cyber incident” involving the computer networks of the Department of Health and Human Services, but the networks were operating normally. They didn’t detail the scope of the incident.

“HHS and federal government cybersecurity professionals are continuously monitoring and taking appropriate actions to secure our federal networks,” according to NSC spokesman John Ullyot.

Although the officials did not name a specific entity responsible for the disinformation campaign, U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly cautioned that Russia, China, Iran and other countries are engaged in ongoing efforts to influence U.S. policy and voters in elections.

Intelligence officials have warned for years that Russia has been engaging in covert social media campaigns using fictional persona, bots, social media postings and disinformation aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord in the electorate.

The Justice Department said the Russian social media effort during the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms included spreading distrust for political candidates and causing divisions on social issues, including immigration and gun control.

Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials privately briefed lawmakers on Russian efforts to stir chaos in American politics and undermine public confidence in this year’s election. The briefing detailed Russian efforts to boost the White House bids of both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Rumors about the government’s response to the spreading virus have circulated online for weeks, prompting authorities in several states to urge residents to seek out trusted sources in government and news.

On Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he’s been asked about the rumors by “senior leaders in business, health care, politics.”

“I’ve had community leaders and elected officials all text me or call me and say ‘I understand on Monday you’re basically going to order everybody to shelter in place for two weeks. The message has been exactly the same,” the Republican governor said.

“We have no plans to do that.”

He said it shows the need for residents to find trusted sources of news and information, such as legitimate news organizations or public health authorities.

“There’s so much information out there,” Baker said. “Some of which is legit, but a lot of it is wild speculation.”

Texts and posts suggesting Texas, Washington and New York states would be shutting down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus escalated with screenshots of text messages circulating online that claimed that within 48 to 72 hours Trump would place the U.S. under a two-week quarantine.

New York City officials last week debunked a claim passed around in text messages that the city’s Metro-North trains, connecting commuters from the suburbs to the city, would be shut down and that other train service would be limited. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also said claims that the state would soon be under quarantine were untrue.

Andy Carvin, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, a Washington based think tank, said the rumors circulating via text are the toughest to trace because they often percolate from private messaging platforms and texts, then are copy-and-pasted into public social media posts.

“There’s no way to know if these are organic or intentional, unfortunately, because the sentiment contained in them is so plausible that they could very easily be born out of home-grown rumors,” he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 175,000 people and left more than 6,700 people dead. In the United States, there have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases and scores of deaths.