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Disclaimer: This report is an independent product of Semantic Visions, shared with the Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the United States Department of State to enhance international understanding and responses. As the work of Semantic Visions, this report does not necessarily reflect the views or analysis of the GEC or the Department of State.

Initial reporting on the virus

The Chinese officials announced the outbreak of a new virus in Hubei Province on the 7th of January 2020. However, the Semantic Visions OSINT system was able to identify an existence of a yet unknown pneumonia-related virus before that through its threat tracking of “Epidemic” and “Infections” related risks.

The very first piece of news on the outbreak surged on the 31st of December 2019 and was based directly on the report of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.

We see that Chinese-speaking media were first to report on the outbreak. While Chinese-speaking sources outside of People’s Republic of China were the first ones to react, mainstream media in Mainland China reported on the topic only hours later.

Using trend/pattern comparison of the first several weeks of news coverage on the new coronavirus disease published in English and Chinese, we see very similar trends/patterns. This points to a surprising level of openness of Chinese media at this stage, especially when compared to the reporting on the outbreak of SARS in 2002.

First disinformation – Russia and the U.S.

The first disinformation narratives quickly followed the official announcement of the virus. According to research conducted by Semantic Visions, the first virus-focused disinformation began appearing in the Russian-speaking cyberspace as early as 20th of January 2020 (firstly published by tvzvezda.ru, a Russian state-owned media operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense), accusing the US of producing COVID-19 as a biological weapon. Before this article, Semantic Visions has not identified any similar conspiracy about COVID-19 being a man-made weapon.

Another surge of disinformation happened just shortly after on the other end of the planet, this time originating in the United States alt-right web news scene. Unlike the Russian sources that suggested that the virus was made by the US military, the American websites implied that the virus was accidentally leaked from a Chinese top-secret governmental biological warfare lab in Wuhan.

The narrative of the virus as being an artificial biological weapon, designed and deployed against China by the US government, was later taken up and amplified by the Chinese governmental propaganda.

The story became an important tool used to divert public attention away from accusations of the initial mishandling of the crisis by the Chinese government. This became particularly noticeable when the narrative was picked up by Chinese governmental officials. The fact that Chinese propaganda amplified a narrative created by the Russian disinformation ecosystem indicates, at the minimum, a convergence of Russian and Chinese interests in the information system.

Download the full report here.

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