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US Ran Covert Anti-Vax Campaign Early in Pandemic to Discredit China

The effort sought to sow doubt in the Philippines and other nations about vaccines, masks and test kits made in China.

The U.S. military ran a secret anti-vaccination campaign at the height of the pandemic in the Philippines and other nations to sow doubt about COVID vaccines made by China, according to a new investigation by Reuters. The clandestine Pentagon campaign, which began in 2020 under Donald Trump and continued into mid-2021 after Joe Biden took office, relied on fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to target local populations in Southeast Asia and beyond. The campaign also aimed to discredit masks and test kits made in China. “Within the Pentagon, within Washington, there was this fear that they were going to lose the Philippines” to Chinese influence, says Joel Schectman, one of the Reuters reporters who broke the story. Schectman says that while it’s impossible to measure the impact of the propaganda effort, it came at a time when the Chinese-made Sinovac shot was the only one available in the Philippines, making distrust of the vaccine “incredibly harmful.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A new investigation by Reuters has revealed the U.S. military ran a secret anti-vaccination campaign at the height of the pandemic in the Philippines and other nations in an effort to sow doubt about COVID vaccines made by China. The clandestine Pentagon campaign began in 2020 under Donald Trump and continued into mid-2021 after President Biden took office. The Pentagon set up numerous fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to target audiences in the Philippines, Central Asia and the Middle East. The campaign also aimed to discredit masks and test kits made in China.

According to Reuters, the secret operation was launched to counter what it perceived as China’s growing influence in the Philippines and other countries. One senior military officer involved in the campaign told Reuters, “We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective. We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud,” they said.

For more, we’re joined by the reporter who broke the story. Joel Schectman is an award-winning investigative journalist who’s written for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal on national security, intelligence and cyber espionage. His recent Reuters piece is headlined “Pentagon ran secret anti-vax campaign to undermine China during pandemic,” joining us now from Washington, D,C.

Joel, thanks so much for being with us. Lay out your major findings. I mean, this is just explosive, what you have discovered.

JOEL SCHECTMAN: So, basically, what we found was that when COVID-19 broke out in January, February 2020, obviously, the entire world was not prepared for what was going to happen next. But in certain areas of the national security establishment in Washington, immediately they saw this through the kind of prism of this kind of new cold war with China, right? And the issue is that that had already been heating up. And there’s this idea in Washington now that China and Russia have been just very successful with these kind of information operations, these kind of propaganda campaigns, of the type that the U.S. used to also do a lot during the Cold War. But there’s this idea that Russia and China had really gotten ahead of the United States in the years since the Cold War. And, you know, in 2016, you have the hacking and leaking during the election to affect the outcome of the election. And there’s this idea that China has really been, like, getting ahead in that sphere, as well, in, like, influencing allies and spreading misinformation.

And that’s the backdrop to what happened in 2020, where COVID breaks out, and then, immediately, or within a few months of the outbreak, China starts spinning this narrative that not only was COVID not created in China, but that it was actually brought to China by the United States military, that maybe it came out of Fort Detrick or maybe it came through a military service member who was participating in a sports competition there. But they start spreading that narrative, and it starts — and, you know, from the Pentagon perspective, there was just this, like, tremendous anger that this narrative was starting to take hold in other — in countries, you know, like the Philippines and Southeast Asia. And so they felt that they had to strike back.

And the other thing that was going on at that period was that even in the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. was starting to come up with a vaccine response, but one that was going to really put, like, America first. It was a very, like, America-first vaccine policy, whereas very, very early in the pandemic, China came out publicly and said that it was going to try to make its vaccines publicly available in the developing world, right?

And all of this starts to play out in the Philippines, which is a country that traditionally was a very close U.S. ally, right? And traditionally, it’s a very close U.S. ally, but had started to move away under President Duterte, had started to move away from the United States and started to move toward China anyway. And then the pandemic breaks out, and Duterte cuts this deal with China that it’s going to be first in line for China’s vaccine that’s under development. And at the same time, Duterte says, “OK, I’m going to also get rid of these old U.S. military agreements that we have. They’re no longer relevant.” And so, within the Pentagon and within Washington, there was this fear that they were going to lose the Philippines, so to speak.

And so they launched this secret propaganda campaign in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to try to denigrate China’s vaccine. And what made it particularly controversial, I think, or controversial now — right? — to look back at it in hindsight, is that it’s not that U.S. was secretly — not just that the U.S. was secretly denigrating a vaccine at the height of the COVID pandemic, which by itself is kind of problematic, but it was doing this at a time that no other vaccine was going to be available in the foreseeable future, right? Like, the United States’s vaccines did not become widely available in the Philippines for like 10 months — for 10 months after they got the Chinese one. So the Chinese one was really the only game in town in the Philippines for like almost the first year of — for almost an entire year.

And so, you know, you have Sinovac, which is really the only one that most Filipinos were able to access, and the Pentagon was using these kind of secret social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook to say that this vaccine was harmful, that it was dangerous, that it was at least ineffective, and that China caused the virus to start with, so, ergo, you know, how can he trust any vaccine that comes out of the country that created the virus itself, right? And they were using these kind of fake accounts that sort of purported to be Filipinos and trying to really stir up this message that, you know, I mean, what’s your track record with Chinese products? Right? They’re all fake, right? You know, what have you seen in your own life? You’ve seen that Chinese products are fake. How can you trust a country that always creates fake products to make a real vaccine? The vaccines are —


JOEL SCHECTMAN: — going to be fake, too. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This is extremely significant, given how many people died in the Philippines of COVID without taking the vaccine. I mean, you have that quote in your piece. “We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective. We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud,” said one senior military officer. How many people died in the Philippines?

JOEL SCHECTMAN: Yeah. So, I’m trying to remember, like, by the end of the — by the end of COVID, how many people passed away. But it was — I mean, you’re talking about a number that reached into — you know, that reached far past the tens of thousands, right?

And there’s no question — it’s very hard to measure, like, the efficacy of a secret campaign like this and say, OK, how much did it move the needle. But I think if we judged it by its intentions — right? — like, the intention was to make people hesitant to take Sinovac — there’s no question that, to the degree that that was successful, it was incredibly harmful. There’s all kinds of public health research in the Philippines that shows that vaccine hesitancy, specifically towards the Chinese vaccines, led to a large number of deaths, because, again, that was the only vaccine that was available from like February 2021 almost ’til early 2022. It wasn’t the only one, but it was almost the only one, right? Like, it was the only one you could reliably get at that point in the country. And the fact that people were so afraid of taking that because of their history of sort of suspicion towards China really had like a very adverse impact. Now, it’s hard to say exactly how much the Pentagon throwing fuel on that fire, like, how much of an impact that had. But if you judge it by its intentions, to whatever degree they were successful with their intentions, it was incredibly harmful.

AMY GOODMAN: You suggest, toward the end of your piece, Joel, that there is a kind of broader move underway within the U.S. military to get more involved in clandestine propaganda to undermine adversaries like China and Russia — both of these countries, of course, criticized by the U.S. precisely for deploying these methods. Can you explain?

JOEL SCHECTMAN: Yeah. So, like I was mentioning earlier, there is this idea that the U.S. has been flat-footed in sort of responding to Chinese and Russian covert propaganda efforts. And there’s this idea that, you know, we’ve been like a little bit too hesitant, a little too kind of moralistic in our response. And as a result, we’ve kind of, like, ceded this sort of information space battlefield to them. There’s this idea that we need to kind of fight fire with fire, the United States needs to take the fight back to the adversary in that realm, and that it needs to envision psyops, as they call them, as having a much bigger role in sort of shifting the — you know, kind of shifting the political dynamic — right? — that psyops, their role is not just in a hot, like, war, dropping leaflets, encouraging surrender, but it really needs to be part of this kind of ideological battle and potentially be used to kind of undermine civil society within, like — you know, within our adversaries.

AMY GOODMAN: Your piece concludes by noting that General Dynamics IT, which worked on the anti-vax campaign, just won a contract worth almost $500 million, half a billion dollars, to, quote, “continue providing clandestine influence services for the military.” Explain.

JOEL SCHECTMAN: Yeah. So, General Dynamics — there’s a lot of different, like, aspects of these psychological operations — right? — because it’s not just online. But for the online part of it, General Dynamics was responsible for the largest Pentagon contract that was involved in this kind of anti-vaccine, kind of COVID propaganda. They were the ones that were kind of running the accounts. Them or their subcontractors, I should say, were running the accounts, running the propaganda during that period.

And they actually got into a lot of hot water, not so much just because of, like, you know, the kind of moral elements of this, or the ethical elements that we’re discussing, but more because they really got caught, right? Like, the accounts were discovered by the social media companies. Like, the tradecraft they used to disguise themselves was very poor. And so they got into a lot of trouble. And people in that world were, like, kind of shocked on that basis for why they would get, like, another contract so soon after to do the same thing, you know, when they were discovered kind of repeatedly and called out repeatedly just like a year ago or two years ago.

So, going forward, my understanding is that they’re going to continue to be the prime or like the main contractor behind these kind of clandestine online kind of propaganda operations, these online —

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about setting up—

JOEL SCHECTMAN: — psyops, as they call them.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, psyops, psychological operations. You’re talking about setting up fake sites.

JOEL SCHECTMAN: Fake websites, fake accounts, you know, fake social media accounts, like Twitter, sock puppets, if you will, to kind of amplify these propaganda lines in countries that the U.S. is in competition with.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Joel Schectman, award-winning investigative reporter who has written for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal on national security, intelligence and cyber espionage. We’ll link to your Reuters piece — now you’re going to The Wall Street Journal, but to your Reuters piece, “Pentagon ran secret anti-vax campaign to undermine China during pandemic.”

Next up, President Biden announces an executive action to streamline the path to citizenship for some half a million people married to American citizens but lack legal status. We’ll speak with Delia Ramirez, the first Latina congressmember to represent Illinois, also married to a DACA recipient who will benefit under President Biden’s new policy. They were at the White House for the announcement earlier this week. Stay with us.

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