COVID-19 Misinformation: Brought to You by the U.S. Government

A covert U.S. military social media campaign was an exercise in profound hypocrisy.


Remember when the federal government accused social media companies of spreading misinformation about COVID-19? Well, according to a recent bombshell report from Reuters, top U.S. policy makers should have pointed their fingers at a giant mirror.

That's because the U.S. military, under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, deliberately spread misinformation on social media about the COVID-19 vaccines, in hopes of encouraging Filipinos to distrust the Chinese government. The disinformation campaign—which involved hundreds of fake accounts on X—promoted the idea that Sinovac, the COVID-19 vaccine created in China, was dangerous.

"COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don't trust China!" read one typical tweet.

Other tweets aimed at Asian Muslims incorrectly asserted that the vaccines contained pork and were contrary to religious dictates. One implied the Chinese vaccine contained rat poison. "What if their vaccines are dangerous?" wondered one Twitter user.

As Reason's Matthew Petti points out, poorly conceived government-backed disinformation campaigns supposedly aimed at foreign adversaries are nothing new. But this one is especially hypocritical since opposition to vaccine misinformation has become one of the Biden administration's central philosophies.

Disinfo Days

In January 2021, Biden was sworn in as president with a mandate to return the country to normalcy amid the death and destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic. By this time, the vaccines had become available to at-risk populations, and over the ensuing weeks and months, millions of Americans chose to become vaccinated.

But the Biden administration became unsatisfied with the pace of vaccination; government health advisers were particularly distraught about vaccine-hesitant Americans receiving bad information about COVID-19 from social media. In July 2021, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory describing misinformation as an urgent crisis.

"In recent years, the rapidly changing information environment has made it easier for misinformation to spread at unprecedented speed and scale, especially on social media and online retail sites, as well as via search engines," wrote Murthy. "Misinformation tends to spread quickly on these platforms for several reasons."

Indeed, the traditional media soon became obsessed with the idea that people were insufficiently enthusiastic about vaccination and that social media was to blame. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit, branded 12 vaccine-skeptical online accounts as the "Disinformation Dozen." In its write-up about the Disinformation Dozen, The New York Times lamented that one of the offenders, a Florida doctor named Joseph Mercola, had made "easily disprovable" claims on Facebook.

Mercola "declared coronavirus vaccines were 'a medical fraud' and said the injections did not prevent infections, provide immunity or stop transmission of the disease," complained the Times.

One sees the problem with stigmatizing any and all vaccine-related opinions that depart from the current orthodoxy. While some of these claims seemed "easily disprovable" in summer 2021, the scientific consensus subsequently conceded that vaccines do not fully prevent infection, provide immunity, or stop transmission. The vaccines lower the risk of serious illness and death, particularly for vulnerable people: the elderly, the obese, and the chronically sick. The miraculous powers initially attributed to them by government health advisers—coronavirus adviser Anthony Fauci described vaccinated Americans as "dead ends" for COVID-19—have not withstood the test of time, unfortunately.

This is not to say that every crazy claim ever made about COVID-19 vaccines has been validated; some social media users have wrongly stated, for instance, that the vaccines caused a spike in deaths from heart conditions, even though researchers have found no evidence of this. Yet it remains the case that so many formerly controversial opinions relating to COVID-19 are no longer considered controversial at all: from the efficacy of cloth masks and social distancing (which Fauci now admits he essentially made up) to the possible laboratory origins of the disease.

Public commentators who inveigh against misinformation ought to have been more circumspect. Nevertheless, Biden himself joined the chorus of government officials railing against misinformation on social media. He accused Facebook and other platforms of "killing people" because they failed to police misinformation. This wasn't mere criticism; the White House communications director said the government was reviewing options to force the social media companies to take stronger actions—possibly by revoking their protection from some liability under Section 230, the federal law that makes the internet possible. Emails between social media moderators and federal bureaucrats suggest that the companies took these threats seriously: My March 2023 cover story for Reason argued that Facebook essentially outsourced coronavirus-related moderation to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Super Spreaders

It's true that the federal government shut down the military disinformation campaign to discredit Sinovac within the first several months of Biden's presidency. But given how stridently the Biden administration sought to shift the onus of responsibility for vaccine hesitancy to social media companies, it's really galling that its own hands were not exactly squeaky clean.

When he learned of the U.S. military's actions, Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, told Reuters: "I'm extremely dismayed, disappointed and disillusioned to hear that the U.S. government would do that."

Dismaying, indeed.


This Week on Free Media

I'm joined by Amber Duke to discuss MSNBC's complaints about "cheap fake" videos, NBC's incoherence on the subject of bump stocks, and whether Rep. Cori Bush (D–Mo.) has magic powers.


Worth Watching

"A Son for a Son," the first episode of House of the Dragon's second season, was quite good, though I had a few issues with it. (Spoilers to follow.)

As always, it's a delight to be back in Westeros. The world building is top notch and immersive; George R. R. Martin's vision truly comes to life. I appreciated small details, like the King's Landing soldiers bracing for conflict when they spot a dragon in the sky, only to breathe a sigh of relief when it's revealed the rider is on their side.

The final sequence of the episode, the infamous murder of a young child, was certainly gripping and terrible, but it lacked a certain amount of plausibility. Where on earth were the guards? It was very, very hard to believe that two not-especially-competent assassins could break into the Red Keep, bumble around, and commit the murder—even if the captain of the Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole, was, er, busy at the time.