EU says China behind 'huge wave' of Covid-19 disinformation
China has been accused by Brussels of running disinformation campaigns inside the European Union, as the bloc set out a plan to tackle a “huge wave” of false facts about the coronavirus pandemic.
The European commission said Russia and China were running “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally”. While the charge against Russia has been levelled on many occasions, this is the first time the EU executive has publicly named China as a source of disinformation.
French politicians were furious when a Chinese embassy website claimed in mid-April, at the height of Europe’s pandemic, that care workers had abandoned their jobs leaving residents to die. The unnamed Chinese diplomat also claimed falsely that 80 French lawmakers had used a racist slur against the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“I believe if we have evidence we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” Vĕra Jourová, a European commission vice-president, told reporters. “What we also witnessed is a surge in narratives undermining our democracies and in effect our response to the crisis, for example the claim there are secret US biological laboratories on former Soviet republics has been spread by both pro-Kremlin outlets, as well as Chinese officials and state media.”
“I strongly believe that a geopolitically strong EU can only materialise if we are assertive,” Jourová said, alluding to the aim of the European commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, for the body to have more clout on the world stage.
The more assertive stance marks a change in tone from a report in March which merely described Chinese media narratives, while focusing the spotlight on disinformation from Kremlin-backed sources. It comes after lawmakers in the European parliament accused the commission of watering down an earlier report on disinformation under pressure from China – charges EU officials strongly denied.
EU member states are grappling with how to deal with China on a range of fronts, from foreign policy and security, to the economy. The commission described China as a “systemic rival” in a 2019 report that was seen by many member states as marking a watershed in how the EU deals with an increasingly aggressive government in Beijing.
The EU commission also issued an implicit rebuke to Donald Trump, as it noted the harmful effects of his bizarre suggestions about injecting bleach to treat coronavirus. Without naming the US president, a commission document stated that such false claims can be “very harmful”, noting that Belgium’s Poison Control Centre has recorded an increase of 15% in the number of bleach-related incidents.
Jourová repeated her praise of Twitter for putting a factchecking tag on two of Trump’s recent tweets, while saying she would like to see a similar approach taken by social media companies on other false information. “Be it the president, be the diplomats, be it me…. when we [politicians] say something we have to be accountable and we should be able to stand that somebody goes and checks the facts.”
The commission has encouraged social media companies to sign a voluntary code of practice on disinformation, while threatening regulation if they fail to act. The latest report steps up demands on platforms to be more transparent in sharing data with researchers and intensify work with independent fact checkers. “I would not like the platforms themselves to be the arbiters of truth,” Jourová said.
The Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok has become the latest company to sign the code of practice, the commission said, joining the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla.