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British homegrown conspiracies get Beijing’s stamp of approval

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how anti-science disinformation is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Russell Brand promotes the Ukraine biolab myth, and Sputnik V’s propaganda op in Latin America

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QAnon adherents and far-right anti-vaccine evangelists, in their ardent support of President Trump, used to lambast China. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed that. “The dynamics of the invasion are shifting their views. In an astoundingly short space of time, Xi Jinping appears to have been recast from a villain to a hero in the QAnon conspiracy pantheon,” analyst Elise Thomas wrote in a report for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on Wednesday.

QAnon conspiracy theories both feed into and borrow from Chinese and Russian state narratives. The claim that the U.S. has bioweapons labs on Russia’s borders is a perfect example.

Indeed, any conspiracy theory dreamed up by disinformation influencers — QAnon or not — has the potential to get picked up by Chinese Communist Party-backed media, if it suits the state narrative. This week, a new symbiotic relationship has emerged between Chinese state media and a fringe British conspiracy website.

On Thursday, China Daily published an article in Mandarin falsely claiming that Covid was created by the pharmaceutical company Moderna. The Beijing-backed outlet screenshotted and republished a page from the British conspiracy website called The Exposé, which claimed “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the virus was created in a Moderna lab.

On Twitter, Li Yang, whose profile says he’s a counselor for the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s department of information, tweeted the The Exposé’s article, telling his 35,000 followers: “the US has an obligation to explain this to the International community!!!”

 “This comes just as China is facing its worst COVID wave since the initial Wuhan outbreak,” behavioral scientist Caroline Orr Bueno tweeted, calling it “blatant disinformation.”

An investigation by Ernie Piper at the U.K.-based anti-disinformation research organization Logically AI revealed that The Exposé is published by a mechanic called Jonathan Allen-Walker from the county of Lincolnshire. It’s not the first time Allen-Walker’s theories have gone global, Piper told me. One of his articles has also been cited in a speech by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.  

Piper told me he decided to shine a light on the author to increase his accountability for spreading dangerous medical misinformation. 

The Exposé, he said, “was unique both for producing a high volume of original content, and because they tried to make it look like they were doing hard-hitting investigative journalism, rather than twisting the facts to suit conspiracy theories,” Piper said. “In 2021 it quickly became one of the most influential places for medical misinformation in the UK.”

While Chinese state media outlets are pumping out British home-grown conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid, it’s becoming increasingly clear Chinese citizens themselves have had enough. In the northeastern city of Shenyang, which recently announced a new lockdown, footage emerged on Chinese social media of shoppers banging against the doors of a clothing market, shouting in frustration of the announcement.   

On Weibo, the heavily censored Twitter-like Chinese platform, the attitude towards zero-Covid measures has become more and more sarcastic and cynical, with a flurry of posts encouraging people to refuse quarantine.

A slew of political jokes has started on Zhihu, a popular Chinese Q&A site. The style of the jokes take their cue from jokebooks that circulated after the Cultural Revolution, and in Russia during the Soviet Union’s reign. According to China Digital Times, the jokes mostly target “Epidemic Prevention Hobbyists,”  a vigilante-style army of zero-Covid volunteers mobilized by the state to enforce public health rules, who may be financially incentivized by “lucrative connections to quarantine facilities.” 

Here’s one of the jokes for you, unearthed and translated by CDT.

“Can we dispatch Epidemic Prevention Hobbyists to Russia, so that the Russians can learn from our country’s experience fighting the virus?”

“Sure we can. But what have the Russians ever done to you that you want to get back at them like that?”

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS

Now that Russia’s mask mandate has been removed, satirical rumors are spreading on social networks that Russians will be fined if they DO wear a mask. A message has been circulating that those wearing facemasks in Moscow’s capital will be seen as having “the intention to hide one’s identity from surveillance cameras or law enforcement agencies.” The message is a joke, but highlights how tense things are in Russia right now, as thousands more people were arrested this week during anti-war demonstrations. I’ve reported on Moscow’s facial recognition system and how it’s used to target protesters before: last year, during protests in support of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, police stopped protesters entering the subway with the fatal words “face control.” While we’re on the subject, Ukraine is also reportedly using facial recognition technology to identify dead Russians and tell their relatives, as part of a campaign to combat Kremlin disinformation about the number of Russian deaths. 

As thousands of refugees continue to enter Poland from Ukraine, a rash of anti-abortion rhetoric has emerged in Poland, pushed by Catholic organizations. Women’s reproductive rights groups have reportedly been offering incoming refugees safe places where they can obtain abortions if they need them, which has prompted anti-abortion groups to march to the border and distribute leaflets saying “abortion is the greatest threat to peace.” In the past two years, traditional values organizations in Poland have pushed through a number of top agenda items including a near-total ban on abortion and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ measures.

Is Russell Brand pushing the Ukraine biolab narrative? The British comedian and social commentator Russell Brand, who has a five million-strong following on YouTube, has weighed in on the biolab disinformation narrative that claims the U.S. is building bioweapons on Russian borders. To be clear: the U.S. does have biolabs in Ukraine — this is no secret. They’ve been there for years. But they are not “germ warfare” labs as Putin would have you think. We’ve covered this extensively in the past — so do check out our reporting on it if you haven’t already. “Brand says he’s “explaining, not condoning” writes Francesca Scott of Logically this week. “But he’s boosting a lie, and dodging responsibility for doing so.”

WHAT WE’RE READING 

Sputnik V’s information operation in Latin America has had mixed success. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace looks at how Russia has tried to boost the vaccine’s reputation in Spanish-language media circles, giving us a fascinating insight into how Moscow burnishes its scientific reputation in Latin America, complementing its greater power ambitions in the region.

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