China-based Covid disinfo operation pushed fake Swiss scientist, Facebook says

Facebook researchers said they found evidence the person was the creation of a Chinese cybersecurity company.

China-based propagandists created an elaborate online disinformation campaign earlier this year centered on an internet persona claiming to be a Swiss biologist in an effort to mislead the public about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Facebook researchers said Wednesday.

Going by the name Dr. Wilson Edwards, the persona wrote on Facebook that the United States was putting undue political pressure on the World Health Organization to blame China for the coronavirus. But Edwards isn’t a real person, which was made clear in August by Switzerland’s embassy in Beijing.

Facebook researchers said they found evidence that the person was the creation of a Chinese cybersecurity company.

Though the character received little attention in the West, he was credulously cited in Chinese state-sponsored media as a whistleblower on world health policy.

Facebook said it had traced that account’s creation to Sichuan Silence Information Technology, a company located in central China. According to its website, Silence was founded in 2000 and offers a wide range of information security services — and counts China’s Ministry of Public Security among its customers. An inquiry sent to an email address on the company’s website bounced back as undeliverable. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

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In a lengthy screed on Facebook in July, the fake scientist persona posted a conspiracy theory that the U.S. was trying to bully the WHO into blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists have traced the first cases of Covid-19 to Wuhan, China, the home of both a renowned virology laboratory and wet markets that many experts agree was the original source of the virus.

Though Facebook sometimes ties disinformation campaigns to particular government agencies, it did not claim that the Chinese government was directly responsible for the campaign surrounding the fake scientist. But Facebook did note that almost immediately after it was created, several people around the world who work for Chinese state infrastructure companies shared the post, as did a number of fake accounts. Almost no other authentic accounts did.

Chinese state-owned media agencies jumped on the story based on claims that the persona had made, including in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, where the story is still live, and the Global Times, where it has since been removed but is still archived. Western media largely addressed the story by debunking it or focusing on Switzerland’s insistence that the scientist wasn’t real.

China has been active in trying to spread messaging that it’s not responsible for the pandemic, though it’s denied WHO officials access to Wuhan to further investigate its origins. Several pro-China coordinated campaigns that seek to spread doubt about the origins of the coronavirus have appeared online, including one that falsely blames the lobster trade.

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