Pentagon secretly ran anti-vax campaigns to undermine China in pandemic

WASHINGTON DC – At the height the Covid-19 pandemic the U.S. Military launched a secret operation to counter China’s increasing influence in the Philippines – a country that was particularly hard hit by the deadly virus.

This clandestine operation was not previously reported. A Reuters investigation revealed that the operation was designed to cast doubt on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and other life-saving aid supplied by China. The military’s propaganda campaign morphed from a pro-vaccine campaign to an antivax one by using phony accounts on the internet that impersonated Filipinos. Social media posts criticized the quality of the face masks, the test kits, and the first vaccine to be available in the Philippines: China’s Sinovac.

Reuters found at least 300 accounts in X (formerly Twitter) that matched descriptions provided by former U.S. officials familiar with the Philippines operations. Most of the accounts were created during the summer 2020, and they all featured the hashtag #Chinaangvirus.

Tagalog tweets from July 2020 often read: “Don’t trust China!” These words were placed next to a picture of a syringe, a Chinese flag, and a chart showing the number of infections. A second post stated: “From China: PPE, Mask, Vaccine FAKE. “But the Coronavirus is real.”

After Reuters contacted X regarding the accounts, X removed them, determining that they were part a coordinated bot-campaign based on internal data and activity patterns.

Reuters has determined that the U.S. anti-vax campaign began in spring 2020, expanded beyond Southeast Asia and was finally terminated by mid-2021. Pentagon tailored its propaganda campaign for local audiences in Central Asia and Middle East. It used fake social media accounts across multiple platforms to spread fears about China’s vaccines to Muslims, at a time the virus was killing thousands of people every day. The Pentagon’s strategy included a key component: spreading the false claim that China’s vaccines could be banned under Islamic law because they contain porc gelatin.

Reuters discovered that the military program began under Donald Trump’s administration and continued into Joe Biden’s presidency – even after social media executives alerted the new administration to the Pentagon’s misinformation about Covid-19. The Biden White House issued a directive in spring 2021 that banned the anti-vax campaign, which also disparaged other vaccines produced rivals. The Pentagon then initiated an internal review.

The Pentagon’s influence campaign is not allowed to target Americans with propaganda. Reuters has found no evidence that this was the case.

Requests for comment on the clandestine program from Trump and Biden’s spokespeople were not answered.

Officials from the Defense Department acknowledged that the U.S. military was involved in secret propaganda against China’s vaccine, but declined to give details.

The Pentagon spokeswoman stated that the U.S. Military “uses various platforms, including social networks, to counter those malicious influence attacks targeted at the U.S. and its allies and partners.” She added that China has started a disinformation campaign in order to falsely accuse the United States of spreading Covid-19.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in an email that the U.S. government has been manipulating social media for years and spreading misinformation.

Manila’s embassy to Washington didn’t respond to Reuters questions, such as whether they were aware of the Pentagon operation. The Philippines Department of Health spokesperson said that the findings of Reuters should be investigated by the relevant authorities of all countries involved.

Reuters briefed some American experts in public health on the Pentagon’s anti-vax secret campaign. They also condemned the program. They said that an operation to win hearts and mind was putting lives at risk.

Daniel Lucey is an infectious disease specialist from Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School. He said: “I do not think that it’s justifiable.” “I am extremely disappointed, disillusioned and dismayed to hear that the U.S. Government would do this,” said Lucey. He is a former medical doctor who helped in the response to 2001’s anthrax attacks.

Lucey, among others, said that the effort to incite fear over Chinese inoculations could undermine public confidence in government-led health initiatives. This includes vaccines made in the United States, which became available in time. Despite the fact that the Chinese shots were less effective than those made by Pfizer or Moderna in the United States, they were all approved by the World Health Organization. Sinovac has not responded to a Reuters’ request for comment.

Recent academic research has revealed that when people develop doubts about a particular vaccine, they often have the same concerns with other vaccinations. Lucey, along with other health experts, say that they witnessed such a scenario in Pakistan when the Central Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, used a fake hepatitis vaccine program in Abbottabad to track down Osama Bin Laden. The discovery of the ruse led a backlash to an unrelated polio vaccine campaign, which included attacks on healthcare staff, contributing to the return of the deadly disease.

Greg Treverton said that it was in the interest of the United States to put as much vaccine as possible in the arms of people. The National Intelligence Council coordinates the strategy and analysis of Washington’s numerous spy agencies. Treverton said that what the Pentagon did “crosses an important line.”

The military used phony accounts to spread disinformation. They had tens and thousands of followers. Reuters was unable to determine the extent of the disinformation and anti-vax material planted by the Pentagon, nor how many people were affected.

After the U.S. campaign of propaganda, Rodrigo Duterte, the then Philippine President, was so disappointed by the low number of Filipinos who were willing to receive vaccinations that he threatened arresting those who refused.

In a June 2021 televised speech, a Duterte masked said: “You can choose to get vaccinated or I’ll put you in jail.” “There’s a crisis here… I am just exasperated that Filipinos don’t listen to the government.”

He said that the Philippines was among the countries with the lowest vaccination rates in Southeast Asia. Only 2.1 millions of the 114 million Filipinos were fully vaccinated, far below the 70 million target set by government. COVID had already killed almost 24,000 Filipinos by the time Duterte addressed the crowd. The high death rate was due to the difficulty of vaccinating the Filipino population.

Duterte’s spokesperson did not allow him to be interviewed.

Reuters spoke to some Filipino health professionals and former officials who were shocked at the U.S. antivax campaign, which they said exploited a vulnerable population. Lulu Bravo said that public concerns over a Dengue virus vaccine, which was rolled out in 2016 in the Philippines, had led to skepticism about inoculations in general. Pentagon’s campaign played on these fears.

Why did you do this when people were dying?” “We were desperate,” said Nina Castillo Carandang, former advisor to the World Health Organization during the pandemic and the Philippine government. She noted that “we don’t even have the capacity to produce our own vaccines” and that the U.S. propaganda campaign “added salt to the wound.”

A former health secretary said that the campaign reinforced a long-standing mistrust of China. This was mainly due to Beijing’s aggressive behavior in disputed South China Sea areas. Esperanza Cabral, former health secretary to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, stated that Filipinos did not trust Sinovac from China, which was first available in March 2021. Cabral claimed that she was unaware of the secret U.S. military operation.

She said, “I am sure there were many people who died of Covid-19 that did not have to die of Covid-19.”

Reuters reported that the Defense Department, in order to implement the antivax campaign, overruled the strong objections of top U.S. Diplomats in Southeast Asia. According to sources involved in the planning and execution of the campaign, the Pentagon did not consider the impact such propaganda could have on innocent Filipinos. The program was run through the military’s Psychological Operations Center in Tampa, Florida.

A senior military officer who was involved in the program said, “We didn’t look at this from a perspective of public health.” “We were trying to drag China into the mud.”

Reuters conducted interviews with more than 20 current and former U.S. officials, military contractors and social media analysts. Reporters also examined Facebook, X, and Instagram posts, as well as technical data and documents, about a group of fake social media profiles used by the U.S. Military. Some of the accounts had been active for over five years.

The government has a number of highly sensitive programs, including clandestine psychological operations. The existence of these programs is only known by a few people in the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. These programs are handled with caution, as their disclosure could harm foreign alliances or escalate conflicts with rivals.

In the past decade, certain U.S. national-security officials have called for a return of the aggressive clandestine operations that the United States used to wage against its rivals during the Cold War. After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, where Russia used a mixture of hacks, leaks, and other methods to influence voters, Washington became more vocal about the need to fight back.

Reuters reported that in March 2019, Trump gave the Central Intelligence Agency permission to launch a secretive campaign on Chinese social networks aimed at swaying public opinion against China’s government. A small group of operatives spread false narratives about Xi Jinping’s government using bogus online identities.

Covid-19 was the catalyst for psychological operations against China. Former senior Pentagon leaders described the pandemic’s “bolt” of energy as the catalyst that ignited long-delayed counteroffensive to China’s influence warfare.

China had spread misinformation about Covid-19’s origins. The Pentagon responded by launching its anti-vax propaganda. The virus was first detected in China at the end of 2019. In March 2020, Chinese officials claimed that there was no evidence to support their claim that an American serviceman who had participated in a military sports competition held in Wuhan in the previous year may have brought the virus into China. Chinese officials have also claimed that the virus could have originated at a U.S. Army Research Facility in Fort Detrick Maryland. This assertion is not supported by any evidence.

According to a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit, Chinese intelligence agents set up fake social media networks to promote the Fort Detrick conspiracies, mirroring Beijing’s official statements.

Washington was drawn to China’s message. Trump then coined “China virus” in response to Beijing accusing the U.S. of exporting Covid-19 from Wuhan.

“That was false. “Rather than argue, I said ‘I must call it what it is’,” Trump said at a news conference in March 2020. “It came from China.”

China’s Foreign Ministry stated in an email it opposes “actions that politicize the origins issue and stigmatize China.” However, the ministry did not comment on the Justice Department complaint.

Beijing’s global influence effort was not limited to propaganda. Beijing announced an ambitious Covid-19 program that included masks, ventilators, and its own vaccines (which were still being tested) to help struggling countries. In May 2020, Xi said that the vaccine China developed would be available as a global public good and ensure “vaccine affordability and accessibility in developing countries”. Sinovac was the main vaccine available in the Philippines until U.S. made vaccines were more widely available.

Washington’s plan called Operation Warp Speed was different. The plan favored inoculating Americans before other countries, and did not place any restrictions on the prices that pharmaceutical companies can charge for vaccines that are not used in the United States. The agreement allowed companies to “play toughball” with developing nations, forcing them into accepting high prices. Lawrence Gostin is a Georgetown University professor of medicine who worked for the World Health Organization.

Gostin stated that the deal “sucked the majority of supply from the global market.” “The United States adopted a very committed America First approach.”

China’s assistance offers, which Washington feared, were affecting the geopolitical landscape in developing countries, including the Philippines, where government officials faced up to 100,000 cases of influenza in the first months of the pandemic.

After the election of Duterte in 2016, the relationship between the U.S. and Manila became tense. He was a staunch critic and threatened to cancel the key pact which allows the U.S. Military to have legal jurisdiction over American soldiers stationed there.

Duterte stated in a speech he gave to Xi on July 2020 that he made “a request” for the Philippines to be the first country China rolled vaccines. In the same speech, he vowed that the Philippines will no longer be a threat to Beijing’s aggressive growth in the South China Sea. This would mean a reversal of a long-standing security agreement between Manila and Washington.

“China claims it.” We claim it. Duterte stated. It’s that simple.

Days later, China’s Foreign Minister announced Beijing would grant Duterte’s request for priority access to vaccine as part of “a new highlight in bilateral relationships.”

Reuters revealed that the growing influence of China on U.S. military leadership fueled their efforts to launch a secret propaganda campaign.

A senior U.S. officer involved directly in the campaign in Southeast Asia said to Reuters, “We didn’t share vaccines well with partners.” What was left for us to do was to cast a shadow on China’s.

U.S. military officials feared that China’s Covid-19 diplomacy could bring other Southeast Asian nations, like Cambodia and Malaysia, even closer to Beijing and further its regional ambitions.

Three former Pentagon officials claim that a senior U.S. commander in charge of Southeast Asia, Special Operations Command Pacific general Jonathan Braga urged his Washington bosses to take action in the “information space”.

The commander wanted to strike back at Beijing initially in Southeast Asia. The goal was to make sure the region knew the origins of Covid-19 and promote skepticism towards vaccines that were still untested, offered by a nation they claimed had been lying continuously since the beginning of the pandemic.

A spokesperson from Special Operations Command declined comment.

Six senior State Department officials in charge of the region have objected strongly to this approach. They argued that a health crisis is not the time to use psyops or psychological operations to create fear or anger.

“We are stooping below the Chinese, and we shouldn’t be doing that,” said an ex-State Department senior official in the region who opposed the military operation.

The Pentagon viewed Washington’s rapidly waning influence in the Philippines, as a call for action. However, the deteriorating relationship led American diplomats plead caution.

Another former senior U.S. diplomatic official said, “The relationship hangs by a thread.” Is this the time to conduct a psyop on the Philippines? “Is it worth taking the risk?”

In the past, this opposition by the State Department could have been fatal for the program. Previously, in peacetime the Pentagon required approval from embassy officials to conduct psychological operations in a particular country. This often hampered commanders who wanted to respond quickly to Beijing’s messages, according to three former Pentagon officials.

Mark Esper, the then Secretary of Defense at the time, signed a secret directive in 2019 that paved the path for the U.S. military’s propaganda campaign. The secret order made the Pentagon’s competition against China and Russia a priority in active combat. This allowed commanders to bypass the State Department to conduct psyops. Congress passed a Pentagon spending bill that year, which explicitly authorized the military’s clandestine influence operation against other countries “outside areas of active hostilities.”

Esper declined to comment through a spokesperson. A spokesperson for the State Department referred all questions to the Pentagon.

In spring 2020, special-ops commander Braga turned to a cadre of psychological-warfare soldiers and contractors in Tampa to counter Beijing’s Covid-19 efforts. Braga, according to colleagues, was a proponent of increasing the use propaganda operations for global competition. U.S. military personnel, contractors, and others would spread anti-vax messages in trailers, squats, and other buildings on MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa. They used anonymous accounts on X and Facebook, and on social media. The facility is still the Pentagon’s secret propaganda factory.

Since more than 100 years, psychological warfare has been a part of U.S. military campaigns. Its style and content have changed over the years. After World War II, psyopers played a supporting role in combat operations across Vietnam, Korea, and Kuwait. They often dropped leaflets on the enemy to confuse them or encourage surrender.

After the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in 2001, the United States faced a borderless and shadowy enemy. The Pentagon started waging a more aggressive psychological warfare, previously only associated with the CIA. Former national security officials have told Reuters that the Pentagon funded TV soap operas, set up front media outlets, and paid prominent local figures to influence locals against Iranian-backed militias or militant groups.

The post-9/11 psyop operations were aimed at a broader shift in public opinion, as opposed to earlier missions that sought a specific tactical advantage.

In 2010, the US military started using social media to spread sympathetic messages from local voices, often paid for by the United States. Over time, an ever-growing network of contractors and military personnel built online news sites to spread U.S. approved narratives in foreign countries. According to former and current military officials, today’s military uses a vast ecosystem of influencers on social media, front groups, and digital ads placed covertly to influence overseas audiences.

Sources said that Braga’s propaganda campaign was justified by China’s attempts to gain geopolitical clout through the pandemic.

By summer 2020 the military propaganda campaign had moved to darker messages and new terrain, attracting the attention of executives in social media.

Three former military officials said that the U.S. Central Command (which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia) launched its own version of Covid-19 psyop outside Southeast Asia.

The Chinese vaccines are still months away from being released, but controversy has erupted in the Muslim world about whether they contain pork gelatin or if the vaccines could be considered ‘haram’ under Islamic law. Sinovac claims that the vaccine is “manufactured without porcine materials.” However, many Islamic religious authorities maintain that even if they did contain pork gelatin the vaccines were still allowed because the treatments are used to save lives.

The Pentagon campaign aimed to increase fears of injecting a derivative of pig. In an internal investigation, X used IP addresses and browsing data to identify over 150 phony account operated by U.S. Central Command, its contractors and from Tampa, according to a Reuters-reviewed internal X document.

“Can you really trust China when it tries to conceal that its vaccine contains porc gelatin, and distributes in Central Asia and Muslim countries where such a drug is considered haram by many?” read a tweet from an account controlled by the military identified as X.

Former military officials claim that the Pentagon spread covert messages via Facebook and Instagram. This alarmingly alerted executives of Meta, the parent company, who had been monitoring military accounts for a long time.

Two people who saw the meme said it showed a pig created from syringes. Reuters discovered similar posts traced to the U.S. Central Command. One image shows a Chinese banner as a curtain between Muslim women wearing hijabs and pigs with vaccine syringes. On the back of the man in the middle with the syringes is the word, “China.” The poster targeted Central Asia including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. These countries distributed tens or millions of doses from China’s vaccines, and took part in human trials.

The X-post is translated into English as: “China distributes vaccines made from pork gelatin.”

According to three former U.S. government officials and a person with knowledge of the situation, Facebook executives first approached the Pentagon during the summer 2020. They warned the military about the ease at which Facebook employees could identify the military’s fake accounts. Facebook claimed that the government was breaking Facebook’s rules by using bogus accounts to spread misinformation about Covid-19 and operating phony accounts.

According to two people who were familiar with the conversation, the military claimed that its fake accounts had been used to counter terrorism. It asked Facebook to not remove the content. Pentagon promised to stop spreading propaganda related to Covid-19, but some accounts remained active on Facebook.

The anti-vax campaigns continued in 2021, when Biden assumed office.

Reuters reported that Facebook officials, angry at the military officials for not heeding their warnings, arranged a Zoom session with Biden’s National Security Council soon after his inauguration. The conversation quickly turned tense.

A senior official in the administration described the reaction when he learned of the campaign’s posts about pigs. “I was stunned. We were concerned that this could have an impact on vaccine hesitancy in developing countries, as the administration was pro-vaccine.

The National Security Council has ordered that all anti-vaccine messages be stopped by spring 2021. A former senior officer who oversaw the program said, “We were told that we had to be pro vaccines and pro all vaccines.” Reuters still found anti-vax messages that continued into April, and deceptive Covid-19 messaging that continued throughout the summer. Reuters was unable to determine why the Covid-19 campaign did not end immediately after the NSC order. The NSC refused to respond to questions from Reuters.

A senior official at the Department of Defense said that these complaints led to a review conducted in 2021 which revealed the anti-vaccine campaign. The investigation also revealed other social and political messages that were “many, very many leagues” away from any acceptable military goal. The official refused to elaborate.

The official stated that the review intensified in the year following, after a Stanford University group of researchers flagged certain accounts as pro-Western robots in a report published to the public. Washington Post was the first to report on this high-level Pentagon investigation. The Washington Post also reported that the military had used fake social media accounts in order to counter China’s claim that Covid-19 was a product of the United States. The Post’s report didn’t reveal, however, that the anti-vax campaign uncovered by Reuters evolved from the original program.

A senior defense official confirmed that the Pentagon had rescinded portions of Esper’s order from 2019, which allowed military commanders bypassing the approval of U.S. Ambassadors when conducting psychological operations. Now, military commanders must work closely with U.S. ambassadors in the countries where they want to make an impact. The policy restricts “broad-based population messaging” such as the psychological operations used to promote vaccine resistance during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

A person who has direct knowledge of this review said that the Pentagon audit found General Dynamics IT to have used sloppy tactics and taken inadequate steps in order to conceal the origins of the fake accounts. A person with direct knowledge of the review said that the audit also revealed that military leaders did not maintain sufficient control over their psyop contractor.

General Dynamics IT’s spokesperson declined to comment.

The Pentagon will continue its clandestine propaganda campaign. Top Pentagon generals stated in a strategy document that was unclassified last year that the U.S. Military could weaken adversaries like China and Russia by using “disinformation distributed across social media, fake narratives disguised news, and other subversive activities” to undermine societal trust and undermine the foundations for government.

In February, General Dynamics IT, the contractor who worked on the antivax campaign won a $493-million contract. Its mission is to continue providing clandestine services of influence for the military. Reuters

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