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Justice Department Tracks Virus Disinformation by Russia, China

Chris Strohm

(Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department is tracking disinformation campaigns worldwide by Russia and China aimed at sowing divisions over the coronavirus crisis, according to John Demers, head of the department’s national security division.

The disinformation operations could fuel confusion and division in the U.S. and other Western countries, Demers said Thursday in an interview with Bloomberg News.

The Russian government’s objective appears to be aimed at weakening the European Union, NATO and Western democracies, in ways parallel to the Kremlin’s effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he said.

The disinformation is aimed at convincing nations hit hard by the pandemic that the EU isn’t doing enough for them -- and that they’d be better off without it, Demers said.

“Within the EU, the way this can play out is exacerbating divisions between some of the southern European countries that have been most strongly affected so far by coronavirus, like Italy and Spain, and the EU as an entity,” Demers said.

The Chinese want to take advantage of the crisis to try to promote the benefits of their political and economic way of life over Western liberal democracy, Demers said.

“Are we starting to see on social media some Chinese disinformation about the coronavirus? The answer is yes,” Demers said. “Who it is and where it’s emanating from, we will see how it plays out and how much of an organized effort this is.”

Not all of the information in the campaigns may be false. Instead, the campaigns might combine legitimate information with fake or exaggerated portrayals, Demers said.

“The Chinese Foreign Ministry official saying the virus came from a U.S. military lab is disinformation, but it’s not something that we would go after criminally,” Demers said. “A bot spreading that and pretending to be not Chinese, pretending to be concerned citizens for coronavirus, is something that we do look at very seriously.”

Hacking operations that are trying to exploit the coronavirus outbreak so far appear for the most part to be criminal in nature, Demers said.But he warned that biomedical research and intellectual property related to the coronavirus is probably of great value to hackers now, including China.

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