The Guardian’s take on the US and vaccine disinformation: a stupid, shocking and deadly game | Editorial

IIn July 2021, Joe Biden rightly protested social media companies’ failure to tackle vaccine misinformation: “They’re killing people,” the US president said. Despite their promises to take action, lies and sensational stories still spread on platforms. Most people who died in the US were not vaccinated. An additional source of frustration for the US was the fact that Russia and China were encouraging distrust of Western vaccinesquestioning its efficacy, exaggerating its side effects and sensationalizing the deaths of people who have been vaccinated.

How, then, would the US describe the effects of its own disinformation at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic? A shocking new report has revealed that the Chinese military has waged a covert campaign to discredit China’s Sinovac vaccine among Filipinos – when nothing else was available to the Philippines. The Reuters research found that this spread to the public in Central Asia and the Middle East, with fake social media accounts not only questioning Sinovac’s efficacy and safety, but also claiming that it used pork gelatin, to discourage Muslims from using it receive. In the case of the Philippines, poor vaccine uptake has contributed to one of the highest death rates in the region. Undermining confidence in a specific vaccine can also contribute to broader vaccine hesitancy.

The campaign, conducted across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (now X) and other platforms, was launched under the Trump administration over the objections of multiple State Department officials. The Biden administration put an end to it after the National Security Council was informed of the issue in spring 2021. The move appears to have been in retaliation for Chinese claims – without any evidence – that Covid was brought to Wuhan by a US soldier. It was also driven by military concerns that the Philippines was moving closer to Beijing.

It is all the more disturbing because the US has seen what happens when it plays strategic games with vaccination. In 2011, in preparation for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the CIA attempted to confirm that it had located him by collecting the DNA of family members through a staged hepatitis B vaccination campaign. The backlash was completely predictable, especially in an area where it was already alleged that the West was using polio vaccines to sterilize Pakistani Muslim girls. NGOs were vilified and polio vaccinators were murdered. Polio revived in Pakistan; Islamist militants in Nigeria subsequently killed vaccinators.

The report said the Pentagon has now rescinded parts of the 2019 order that allowed the military to bypass the State Department in conducting psychological operations. But while the prospect of a second Trump administration resuming such tactics is alarming, the attitudes that spawned them run deeper. Reuters pointed out one strategy document last year, in which generals noted that the US could weaponize information, adding: “Disinformation spread on social media, false stories disguised as news, and similar subversive activities weaken societal trust by undermining the foundations of government. ”

The US is right to challenge the Kremlin’s troll farms, Beijing’s propaganda and the irresponsibility of social media companies. But it’s hard to take a moral high ground when you’re pumping out lies. The consequences in this case were particularly predictable, obvious and horrific. It was indefensible to pursue a project with such a clear potential to cause unnecessary deaths. It should not be repeated.