The coronavirus-Wuhan bioweapons lab conspiracy theory’s weird echo

Nefarious labwork

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There is sickness shrouded in uncertainty. With the ambient confusion floating around, a story emerges pinning the cause of the malady to a specific, government-linked lab.

Take the conspiracy theory that coronavirus was invented as a bioweapon in a Wuhan bioweapons: it echoes the pattern of stories promoted heavily by Russian disinfo outlets in 2018 following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK.

The Kremlin-aligned disinfo outlets claimed the Novichok nerve agent used to poison the Russian emigre father and daughter was in fact created near Salisbury at the UK’s chemical weapons centre.

The same year, the Kremlin decided the US was “running a clandestine biological weapons lab in the country of Georgia, allegedly flouting international conventions and posing a direct security threat to Russia — allegations the Pentagon angrily rejected.”

“It’s highly likely that the U.S. is building up its military biological potential under the cover of studying protective means and conducting other peaceful research, flouting international agreements,” said a Russian general in charge of that nation’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops.

The Wuhan bioweapons conspiracy theory also echoes the famous Cold War-era Operation Infektion when the KGB spread the lie that the AIDS virus was created in a biological weapons research laboratory in the US state of Maryland.

Could the source or promoters of these conspiracies be related over the years? It could just be a coincidence. Definitely. But it could also be a hackneyed storyline.

I can’t, unfortunately, say for certain which it is. But the pattern holds in these three examples.

More about the psychology of conspiracy theories in The Age piece .

Anger in China creates pressure for an immediate response from Western brands

Hong Kong protesters (Source: Wikicommons)

“The perception of economic harm can have an outsized effect on domestic interests, creating pressures for rapid political compromise,” according to research on China’s power for economic coercion over Australia.

And the pressure for rapid compromise is also what makes global brands buckle so quickly. Australia, however, may have more strength in this area than generally believed.

The larger question is whether Western consumers and politicians will mobilise to defend free speech as vigorously as China has done to protect its conception of its territorial sovereignty.

(From The Age, on the global response to China’s outrage over the NBA manager’s comments on the Hong Kong protests. )

Information defense: ‘unity on par with diversity’

For information war defense, there needs to be a unity of purpose – pursued by diverse stakeholders. Diverse voices with diverse professional backgrounds – commercial, government, academic, pop culture even – need to be corralled into a unified effort – often with quite short time horizons.

In this way, the defense of the facts and the truth can work to push back on the mass streams of disinformation and conspiracy theory being marshaled through the internet by authoritarian regimes.

American information operations expert Jon Herrmann has laid out valuable ideas in a piece called “Defense and Self-Defense in the Information Age: Collaborative Strategy and Collective Vision”.

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Citizen defender (US)

Herrmann advises: “News and social media would cooperate with the (US) Department of Education to promote unity on par with diversity.”

He’s talking about the values to promote in education, and yet, the observation points to a broader strategy for democracies to defend and promote truth online, which should be a shared, global goal of democracies.

To look at the example of the United States, it’s clear that a democracy starved of truthful information cannot function correctly. A republic in which the voters have the final say needs factual and relatively truthful information for the public and politicians to play their role.

If the world is awash in misinformation, it makes it harder to know what to believe. Just take a look at the disinformation surrounding Syria today. Not only do Russia and ally Bashar al-Assad contest the events on the ground, they then try to use international fora to further confuse and bamboozle the global public.

In this world, then, Herrmann observes, “The domain shapes the strategy” and unlike land, sea, or air, “arguably, the information environment is the most dynamic, so a strategy that works within that environment must be equally dynamic.”

“The strategy must shape the environment to promote the flow of truth and contest the spread of disinformation and lies.”

But to do so, the US – and potentially any open liberal democracy reliant on good information – “needs a unified strategy to promote free collaboration.”

Herrmann proposes a “joint interagency task force (that) could enhance unity through collaboration across governmental and non-governmental groups.”

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The UN can be another platform for authoritarian disinfo

Getting this right would take work. A key feature would be for stakeholders to essentially be on-call, and come together in matter of days to counter campaigns aimed at the democracy. Herrmann says “days” but I would almost suggest hours.

In any case, having an open, collaborative, dynamic, on-call approach would be essential. Stakeholders would need to be motivated not by formal structure, as much as shared vision for the world and international relations.

And that shared vision must cut across the private sector, the technological sector (a big ask), the military, intelligence, the political class, and finally, the public. (It’s vitally important that this shared vision is embraced by the public.)  The solution would likely be ideals-based, rather than engineered.

In Herrmann’s example, the US State Department: “would encourage partners to enhance the flow of  true information (including English education to increase that flow, contrary to  tyrannies like Iran). Free flow of information carries risk. Still, the US has a tremendous advantage if true information moves freely and globally. State would also advise partners on increasing capacity to convey truth and counter disinformation.”

Part of the End of History conundrum for Western democracies today is that when history allegedly “ended” (in the 1990s), there was no galvanizing vision for democracies that all people could participate in. Worse, the current exodus from the political center seems to reward a certain level of divisiveness. Social media platforms do as well, as outrage equals engagement equals ad sales.

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Territorial defender (UK)

The notion of “unity on par with diversity”, in fact, could be self-reinforcing, as well, relevant not just for external relations between democracies – but internally, as well.

Internally, for example, the challenge for center-left or centrist parties today is to hold  together diverse coalitions of voters.

What if, rather than focusing on a voting segment’s identity and plight, all segments were instead given a unifying focus?

There would still be differences among constituents and plenty of room for them – the day-to-day emphasis of the politics, however, would be on the shared rhetorical goal of party-members, rather than the identity. This is point made by US political scientist Mark Lilla.

I can’t see how a similar effort to draw together various stakeholders in Australia wouldn’t make the same sense.

Why? Because autocracies – even those that Australia trades heavily with – “can often unify and mobilise their governments in ways democracies cannot,” Herrmann writes.

“For example, China can (and does) compel their corporations—and even foreign corporations doing business in China—to censor pro-democracy information and share vast stores of personal information with the ruling Communist Party; the American government cannot.”

“The Chinese model seeks to unify by censorship, myth-making propaganda, and Orwellian control.”

But as Herrmann says in the next line: “A shared vision, with guidelines and a structure to empower that vision, is necessary to unify a democracy.”

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#China influence afoot? Secure your hashtags, Australia

Given the surge of news and developments around the China influence story, it’s worthwhile to consider what Australians would do if they found the hashtag #Chinainfluence blocked in their own social media conversations.

More likely, the term could be drowned out. Or rendered unusable.

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So imagine if trolls or bots or other coordinated teams of humans undertook a campaign to suppress the productive use of hashtags like #auspol, or #dastayari or #UFWD or #SouthChinaSea or one as broad as #China itself in Australian social media conversation.

Trolls could be located overseas even as they influenced or squelched domestic Australian discussion.

It’s not as if China doesn’t already do this domestically as a way to shape and derail public conversation.

The ability to micro-blog relevant news on the subject of influence campaigns on social media platforms such as Twitter has become the norm for the nation’s class of  academics, researchers, policymakers and self-selected members of the informed public.

In a crisis, would important news about Australian national security be accessible on this platform?

Think about how reliant communications regarding Australian national security are on a foreign-based platform with an incredibly uneven record of countering abuse and misuse.

The social media companies are staffed with people who confuse the concept of “free speech” with the action of coordinated trolling campaigns, often driven by nation states.

That means, when authoritarian nations are exploiting social media platforms to undermine democracies, don’t expect timely or effective help from the company.

As Australia begins addressing influence operations conducted on its own shores by foreign powers, it’s important to consider the enormous vulnerability of social media that many in Australia’s political class and civil society have embraced as normal, and even desirable.

What kind of backup plans and redundancies does the nation has in place to prevent discussion on social media from being stymied, manipulated and disrupted?

It’s just a thought.

But one worth thinking about now – before a crisis hits.

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