Pentagon bristles at anti-American rhetoric in foreign coronavirus reports

(Department of Defense / Army Staff Sgt. Brandy Nicole Mejia)

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U.S. military officials are criticizing foreign governments for spreading disinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the latest example of the Pentagon trying to mitigate foreign propaganda, U.S. officials admonished the governments of Russia, China and Iran for leveraging the international COVID-19 outbreak to summon anti-American sentiment. U.S. officials, in a statement Monday on a government website, accused state-funded media agencies, like Russia’s Sputnik News, of creating mistrust in credible information in order to create confusion.

“These are the messages that are endangering global health because they’re undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public,” said Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in a piece published by DOD News, a U.S. government-funded media agency.

It’s the latest example of U.S. officials responding to foreign propaganda since the State Department began tracking foreign coronavirus-related propaganda efforts in January. DOD News cited a number of examples of fabricated news, such as Russian state media reporting that hand-washing was an ineffective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, and instances where purported news outlets suggested U.S. pharmaceutical companies inflated rumors about the virus as part of a plan to increase sales.

American officials also described a Chinese narrative that the coronavirus began with an U.S. service member who traveled to China as “counterproductive,” and faulted Iran for blaming the U.S. for the pandemic. The criticism comes after the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said in March that the U.S. has communicated to China, Russia and Iran about coronavirus disinformation “they need to knock it off.”

Meanwhile, President Trump has not conveyed the same message as the military, or the secretary of State. In a March 30 press conference, Trump downplayed concerns about foreign disinformation efforts, citing his own use of the “Chinese virus” description, a rhetorical device that experts have warned could fan domestic xenophobia.

“They do it and we do it and we call them different things and you know, I make statements that are very strong against China, including the Chinese virus, which has been going on for a long time,” he said. “Every country does it.”

In the weeks since, pro-Russian media outlets have sought to amplify multiple narratives around the coronavirus, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab has reported. The effort has included reports that Eastern European countries’ economies would collapse, reports that Russia would close key trade routes, and has included narratives that the Baltic states are feuding over quarantine measures.

It’s just the kind of activity that the Pentagon says it’s trying to stop.

“We’re calling on all countries — Russia included — to rein in malign actors that are spreading misleading, disruptive information about the virus,” Laura Cooper, the assistant secretary of Defense, said in the DOD News article published Monday.

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coronavirus, Department of Defense (DOD), Donald Trump, information operations, Mike Pompeo, State Department
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