Warnings in mid-March that the US government was about to use the military to lock down the entire country were disseminated by Chinese operatives seeking to spread panic and undermine the government, intelligence agencies believe. Officials tell the New York Times that the misinformation spread on social media and through text messages. A typical one cited an alleged source in the Department of Homeland Security who "said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders." Officials say that after an initial push from the Chinese agents to "amplify" messages (which they aren't believed to have created), so many people spread the lockdown disinformation that the National Security Council had to issue a message March 15 saying rumors of a national quarantine were fake.
Officials say Chinese agents appear to have started using Russia's tactics in their efforts to spread division in the US. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian—who claimed last month that the US military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan—said Tuesday that the allegations are "complete nonsense." According to a State Department report seen by the Wall Street Journal, Russia, China, and Iran have been cooperating on disinformation campaigns, claiming, among other things, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created the coronavirus to make money from treatment. The three countries "do have media cooperation agreements and I think this is important because disinformation narratives are known to originate from official state news sources," says special envoy Lea Gabrielle. (Read more China stories.)