Sunday, June 16, 2024

Pentagon ran secret anti-vax campaigns during Covid pandemic, whistleblowers reveal

There has been a phenomenal amount of propaganda surrounding Covid vaccines

The US military carried out secret campaigns to spread anti-vaccine sentiment and counter China's rising global influence.

The covert operation, which has never been previously reported, targeted people living in the Philippines to instill doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid that was being supplied to the island nation by China.

The misinformation campaign targeted millions across multiple countries and officials tailored the propaganda to audiences also across Central Asia and the Middle East to spread fear of China's vaccines among Muslims.

Through fake internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos, and residents of several other countries, the US military's propaganda efforts were aimed at specifically slamming aid supplied by China, which was doing so to gain favorable public opinion and geopolitical leverage.

America's tactics also included calling into question the quality of face masks, test kits and the first vaccine that would become available in the Philippines – China's Sinovac shot.

Officials who spoke of the concerted efforts said it's possible the US's actions led to unnecessary Covid infections and potential deaths, as well as spread anti-vax sentiments across the world regarding all available vaccines, including ones made in America.

A Reuters investigation identified at least 300 accounts on X that matched descriptions shared by former US military officials familiar with the Philippines operation.

Almost all were created in the summer of 2020 and centered on the slogan '#Chinaangvirus,' which translated to 'China is the virus' from the Philippine's Tagalog language.

'COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don't trust China!' a typical tweet from July 2020 said.

The words accompanied a photo of a syringe next to a Chinese flag and a chart of surging infections.

Another post read: 'From China – PPE, Face Mask, Vaccine: FAKE. But the Coronavirus is real.'

After Reuters asked X about the accounts, the social media company removed the profiles, determining they were part of a coordinated bot campaign based on activity patterns and internal data.

In uncovering the operation, Reuters interviewed more than two dozen current and former US officials, military contractors, social media analysts and academic researchers.

Reporters also reviewed Facebook, X and Instagram posts, technical data and documents about a set of fake social media accounts used by the military. Some were active for more than five years.

The American military's anti-vax effort began in the spring of 2020 and expanded beyond Southeast Asia before it was terminated in mid-2021, Reuters determined.

Tailoring the propaganda to audiences across Central Asia and the Middle East, the Pentagon used a combination of fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to spread fear of China's vaccines among Muslims at a time when the virus was killing tens of thousands of people each day.

A key part of the strategy was to amplify the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China's shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law, which prohibits the consumption of pork.

The military program was started under former President Donald Trump and continued months into Joe Biden's presidency – even after concerned social media executives warned the new administration the Pentagon had been promoting misinformation.

The Biden White House issued an order in spring 2021 banning the effort, which also disparaged vaccines produced by other rivals, and the Pentagon initiated an internal review.

The US military is prohibited from targeting Americans with propaganda, and the investigation found no evidence the Pentagon's influence operation did so.

Spokespeople for Trump and Biden did not respond to Reuter's requests for comment about the program.

A senior Defense Department official acknowledged the military engaged in secret propaganda to disparage China's vaccine in the developing world, but the official declined to provide details.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military 'uses a variety of platforms, including social media, to counter those malign influence attacks aimed at the US, allies, and partners.'

She also noted China had started a 'disinformation campaign to falsely blame the United States for the spread of COVID-19.'

In an email, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has long maintained the US government manipulates social media and spreads misinformation.

A spokesperson for the Philippines Department of Health, however, said the 'findings by Reuters deserve to be investigated and heard by the appropriate authorities of the involved countries.'

Additionally, some American public health experts who were made aware of the campaign also condemned the program, saying it put civilians in jeopardy for potential geopolitical gain.

'I don't think it's defensible,' said Dr Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine.

Lucey, a former military physician who assisted in the response to the 2001 anthrax attacks, added: 'I'm extremely dismayed, disappointed and disillusioned to hear that the US government would do that.'

The effort to stoke fear about Chinese inoculations risked undermining overall public trust in government health initiatives, including U.S.-made vaccines that became available later, Lucey and others said.

Although the Chinese vaccines were found to be less effective than the American-led shots by Pfizer and Moderna, all were approved by the World Health Organization.

Research published recently has shown when individuals develop skepticism toward a single vaccine, those doubts often lead to uncertainty about other inoculations.

Together, the phony accounts used by the military had tens of thousands of followers during the program. Reuters could not determine how widely the disinformation was viewed, or to what extent the posts may have caused Covid deaths by dissuading people from getting vaccinated.

Following the campaign's secret launch, however, then-Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had grown so dismayed by how few Filipinos were willing to be vaccinated he threatened to arrest people who refused vaccinations.

When he addressed the vaccination issue, the Philippines had among the worst inoculation rates in Southeast Asia. Only 2.1million of its 114million citizens were fully vaccinated – far short of the government's target of 70 million.

By the time Duterte spoke, Covid cases exceeded 1.3million and nearly 24,000 Filipinos had died from the virus.

A spokesperson for Duterte did not make the former president available for an interview.

Some Filipino healthcare professionals and former officials contacted by Reuters were shocked by America's anti-vax effort, which they say exploited an already vulnerable population.

The campaign also reinforced what one former health secretary called an already longstanding suspicion of China.

Filipinos were unwilling to trust China's Sinovac, which first became available in the country in March 2021, said Esperanza Cabral, who served as health secretary under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

'I'm sure that there are lots of people who died from Covid who did not need to die from Covid,' she said.

To implement the anti-vax campaign, the DoD overrode strong objections from top US diplomats. Sources involved in its planning and execution told Reuters the Pentagon, which ran the program through the military's psychological warfare operations center in Florida, disregarded the impact the propaganda could have had.

Psychological warfare has played a role in US military operations for more than a hundred years, although it has changed in style and substance over time.

'We weren't looking at this from a public health perspective,' said a senior military officer involved in the program. 'We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud.'

The Pentagon's anti-vax propaganda came in response to China's own efforts to spread false information about the origins of Covid, which emerged in China in late 2019.

But in March 2020, Chinese government officials claimed, without evidence, the virus may have been first brought to China by an American service member who participated in an international military sports competition in Wuhan the previous year.

Chinese officials also suggested the virus may have originated in a US Army research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. There's no evidence for those claims.

Mirroring Beijing's public statements, Chinese intelligence operatives set up networks of fake social media accounts to promote the Fort Detrick conspiracy, according to a US Justice Department complaint.

Beijing didn't limit its influence efforts to propaganda. It announced an ambitious Covid assistance program, which included sending masks, ventilators and its own vaccines – still being tested at the time – to struggling countries.

In May 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the vaccine China was developing would be made available as a 'global public good,' and would ensure 'vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.'

Sinovac was the primary vaccine available in the Philippines for about a year until US-made vaccines became more widely available there in early 2022.

China's offers of assistance were tilting the geopolitical playing field across the developing world, including in the Philippines, which the US already had a tense relationship with.

Duterte said in a July 2020 speech he had made 'a plea' to Xi that the Philippines be at the front of the line as China rolled out vaccines.

He vowed the Philippines would no longer challenge Beijing's aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, upending a key security understanding Manila had long held with America.

Days later, China's foreign minister announced Beijing would grant Duterte's plea for priority access to the vaccine, as part of a 'new highlight in bilateral relations.'

China's growing influence fueled efforts by US military leaders to launch the secret propaganda operation, Reuters uncovered.

'We didn't do a good job sharing vaccines with partners. So what was left to us was to throw shade on China's,' a senior US military officer involved in the campaign told Reuters.

At least six senior State Department officials responsible for the Central Asian region objected to this approach to Pentagon officials and said a health crisis was the wrong time to instill fear or anger through a psychological operation, or psyop.

But in spring 2020, General Jonathan Braga, a senior US military commander responsible for Southeast Asia, turned to a small group of psychological-warfare soldiers and contractors in Tampa to counter Beijing's COVID efforts.

In trailers and buildings at a facility on Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, US military personnel and contractors would use anonymous accounts on X, Facebook and other social media to spread what became an anti-vax message.

China's efforts to gain geopolitical clout from the pandemic gave General Braga justification to launch the propaganda campaign, sources said.

By summer 2020, the military's operation moved into new territory and darker messaging, eventually drawing the attention of social media executives.

In regions beyond Southeast Asia, senior officers in the US Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East and Central Asia, launched their own version of the COVID psyop, three former military officials told Reuters.

The Pentagon also covertly spread its messages on Facebook and Instagram, alarming executives at parent company Meta who had long been tracking the military accounts, according to former military officials.

Facebook executives had first approached the Pentagon in the summer of 2020, warning the military that Facebook workers had easily identified the military's phony accounts, according to three former US officials and another person familiar with the matter.

The government, Facebook argued, was violating the social site's policies by operating the bogus accounts and by spreading Covid misinformation.

The military argued many of its fake accounts were being used for counterterrorism and asked Facebook not to take down the content, according to two people familiar with the exchange.

The Pentagon pledged to stop spreading Covid-related propaganda, but some of the accounts continued to remain active on Facebook and the anti-vax campaign continued into 2021 as Biden took office.

By spring 2021, the National Security Council ordered the military to stop all anti-vaccine messaging.

'We were told we needed to be pro-vaccine, pro all vaccines,' said a former senior military officer who helped oversee the program.

Even so, Reuters found some anti-vax posts that continued through April 2021 and other deceptive Covid-related messaging that extended into that summer in multiple countries.

Reuters could not determine why the campaign didn't end immediately with the NSC's order. In response to questions from Reuters, the NSC declined to comment.

The senior DoD official said those complaints led to an internal review in late 2021, which uncovered the anti-vaccine operation. The probe also turned up other social and political messaging that was 'many, many leagues away' from any acceptable military objective.

The official would not elaborate.

The review intensified in 2022, the official said, after a group of academic researchers at Stanford University flagged some of the same accounts as pro-Western bots in a public report.

The high-level Pentagon review was first reported by the Washington Post, which also reported that the military used fake social media accounts to counter China's message that Covid came from the United States. But the Post report did not reveal that the program evolved into the anti-vax propaganda campaign uncovered by Reuters.

The Pentagon's internal audit concluded the military's primary contractor handling the campaign, General Dynamics IT, had employed sloppy tradecraft, taking inadequate steps to hide the origin of the fake accounts, said a person with direct knowledge of the review.

The review also found military leaders didn't maintain enough control over its psyop contractors, the person said.

A spokesperson for General Dynamics IT declined to comment.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon's covert propaganda efforts are set to continue.

In an unclassified strategy document last year, top Pentagon generals wrote the US military could undermine adversaries such as China and Russia using 'disinformation spread across social media, false narratives disguised as news, and similar subversive activities [to] weaken societal trust by undermining the foundations of government.'

And in February, General Dynamics IT won a $493million contract with the mission to continue providing clandestine influence services for the military.




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