Internal EU report on coronavirus disinformation was harsher on China than public release

The public report that the EEAS posted online Friday had muted criticism for Beijing, and said that “other actors,” in addition to China, were deflecting blame. (Getty Images)

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A publicly released European Union report on disinformation campaigns related to the novel coronavirus is watered down and less detailed in describing Chinese government activity compared to an internal assessment, according to a copy of the document obtained by CyberScoop.

The internal assessment from the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, was more direct in describing Chinese efforts to manipulate public perceptions of the pandemic. The document, which also covers Russian and Iranian disinformation efforts, singled out “official Chinese sources” for making a “continued and coordinated push” to deflect blame for the virus’s spread. It pointed to reports that China was running “a global disinformation campaign” to both shield itself from criticism and “improve its international image.”

But the public report that the EEAS posted online Friday was less direct in its criticism of Beijing, and said that “other actors,” in addition to China, were deflecting blame.

The New York Times reported earlier Friday that some EU officials had softened the report, and delayed its release, following pressure from Beijing.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for the EU, said in an emailed statement that the “preparation and circulation of internal documents/reports and publishing of material designated for public/media consumption are two separate processes with different procedures, contents and timelines.”

Since emerging in Wuhan, China late last year, the coronavirus has killed nearly 200,000 people worldwide, crippled economies, and exacerbated tensions between global powers. Alongside the race to contain the virus and develop a vaccine, trolls and bots have flooded social media to persuade people that governments like China, Iran, and Russia are handling the crisis better than the U.S. and countries in Europe.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the illness as the “Chinese virus” in an attempt to blame Beijing as COVID-19 has ravaged the U.S.

The 25-page EEAS internal assessment hints at how geopolitical pressure is factoring into the global response to the virus.

The public report documented some Chinese state-backed disinformation efforts, but the internal assessment is blunter on a variety of fronts. It states that Chinese officials had been aggressively pressuring the French government with “disinformation messages” related to the pandemic, an anecdote missing from the public report. Also left out was a description of a network of bots in Serbia that praised China’s response to the pandemic, along with a mention of Taiwan reporting roughly 200 fake news sites originating in China.

The internal document concludes that governments in the Middle East are increasingly turning, “legally, or not” to spyware to surveil their citizens. The EEAS assessment also reflects on the limits of Russian efforts to spin positive domestic narratives about its response to the virus.

“As the COVID-19 situation on the ground becomes worse in Russia, reporting on state-controlled media is generally getting more sober,” the assessment states. “Overall, the Kremlin is experiencing the shortcomings of its own disinformation ecosystem, which normally supported its policies.”

You can read the full internal report below.

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China, coronavirus, European Union, information operations, Iran, Russia
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