By Edward Lucas, Jake Morris, Corina Rebegea, for CEPA

PDF file is here.


The covid-19 public health crisis involves more than a fight against the coronavirus. It has prompted an information war in which the United States and its allies are losing ground to adversaries, particularly Russia and China. While the pandemic enables disruption of the information environment, it also presents a research opportunity. Based on a literature review through January 2021, evaluated at an expert seminar, this policy brief provides a baseline analysis of changing tactics, narratives, and distribution strategies in Russian and Chinese information operations (IOs) relating to the covid-19 pandemic.

Key findings:

  • China copied Russia’s tactics, spreading disinformation globally for the first time, particularly on the virus’s origins. But it lacks Russia’s skillset;
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turned to destructive and conspiratorial narratives in an attempt to blunt criticism of its initial failure to contain covid-19;
  • China’s previous approach built economic ties and influence with political elites, whereas Russia’s lies and disruption targeted broader public opinion;1
  • Russia’s approach evolved little; it recycled previous narratives, spreading a broad range of covid-19 disinformation;
  • Evidence supports the theory that Russia seeks to strengthen itself in relative terms by weakening the West, while China seeks to strengthen itself in absolute terms;
  • Collaboration agreements between state media and circular amplification of narratives during the pandemic do not (yet) amount to evidence of strategic Sino-Russian coordination; and
  • Covid-19 disinformation has not only hampered public health provision, it makes societies more vulnerable to future IOs.



Russia’s strategic aim is to undermine the foundations of the liberal democratic order by delegitimizing the United States as a credible partner, intensifying divisions within the transatlantic alliance, and eroding public support for values and institutions.2 Its approach is confrontational, destructive, and often clandestine.

Russia conducted social media manipulation campaigns in at least 70 countries in 2019, twice as many as in 2017, marking a continued increase in sophistication and intensity.3 Tactics include concealing, disguising, coopting, penetrating, and manipulating.4 Spreading conspiracy theories muddies the information environment and undermines public confidence in the nature of truth.5 Local proxies help Russia exploit social tensions and obfuscate the origins of its disinformation. Their existence also hampers regulation by raising freedom of speech concerns.6 The Kremlin mainly relies on Western social media platforms, whereas China can also use its own platforms that are subject to control from Beijing.7 While geopolitical success attracts the attention of others, China was slow to converge with Russia’s aggressive IO tactics before covid-19.


Before 2020, China’s IOs were more subtle, patient, and risk-averse than Russia’s, even though Xi Jinping brought a more aggressive approach to Chinese foreign policy.8 The CCP started spreading disinformation on social media outside of mainland China as early as 2017, but this focused on elites, building a positive image of China and creating a consistent narrative.9 Global influence campaigns included promoting favorable content through state media outlets and cultivating or purchasing foreign outlets as proxies.10

Before 2020, Chinese disinformation focused on hot-button issues that impacted the CCP’s core claims to legitimacy: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.11 In 2018, China used disinformation to interfere in Taiwan’s legislative elections, apparently benefiting the pro-Beijing opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).12 Chinese embassies and ambassadors began opening social media accounts on Western platforms in 2019 during the protests in Hong Kong, a trend that continued into 2020.13

Notable Differences 

  • In 2020, half of English-language Chinese state media reporting was about China, while only 5% of Russian English-language state media reporting focused on Russia. Despite recent changes (see below), these statistics confirm that Russia seeks to strengthen itself in relative terms by weakening the West, while China seeks to strengthen itself in absolute terms.14
  • China is confident whereas Russia doubts its soft power. China has its own strengths in the media and information space and already owns five of the six most-followed news pages on Facebook.15 China inserted content into mainstream foreign publications whereas Russia largely influenced the information environment through social media, fringe proxies, and its own media outlets.16
  • Russia’s IOs were more confrontational, while China’s were more under-the-radar.17 The Kremlin was willing to live with the consequences of interfering in elections and spreading disinformation. China acted more cautiously with the hope that building influence in a less overt and disruptive manner would bring future benefits.
  • Unlike the Kremlin, the CCP relied more on suppressing negative information, both domestically through its censors, and overseas through the growing Chinese media presence, companies’ dependence on the Chinese market, covert funding of think tanks and universities, as well as links with political elites.18
  • During covid-19, experts witnessed significant convergence between the two state actors with China spreading mutually contradictory conspiracy theories and Russia further closing its information space; it remains to be seen whether these are long-term changes.
Photo: Polish healthcare workers put on their PPE during a mass nationwide testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zilina, Slovakia, January 23, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa

Photo: Polish healthcare workers put on their PPE during a mass nationwide testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zilina, Slovakia, January 23, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa


Russia’s approach to disinformation didn’t evolve as rapidly as China’s. But its success has inspired other actors to use the Russian playbook. In 2020, China’s IO tactics converged with Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” model, including spreading multiple conflicting conspiracy theories to undermine people’s trust in facts.19 For the first time, China actively spread disinformation on a global scale, partially with diplomats’ increased use of Western social media.20 But Kremlin-sponsored content receives substantially more engagement, reflecting Russia’s better understanding of Western political dynamics.15 This potentially provides China with a ready-to-use toolkit that complements its own strengths.

Russian Narratives

During the covid-19 pandemic, Russian disinformation has recycled many anti-Western narratives from previous crises. Disinformation plugs into existing master narratives such as NATO’s nefarious role, the European Union’s (EU’s) incompetence and decay, democracies’ failure to deal with crises, and endemic Western Russophobia. With time, conspiracies build upon each other and prime target audiences for ever more disinformation.

Covid-19 as a Western bioweapon

Allegations that the United States created the covid-19 virus received the largest social media engagement.21 This echoed Operation Denver, the Soviet attempt in the 1980s to blame the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the United States.22 Russia revived narratives that tied military laboratories and U.S. troops to the outbreak, including accusations that a U.S.-led military exercise helped spread the virus.23 This disinformation particularly affected the largest Western democracies and countries on Russia’s periphery.24 Special targets were Ukraine and Georgia, where Russia shared more information about covid-19 than local media in an attempt to dilute the information environment with pro-Kremlin and anti-Western narratives.25

The failure of Western response

Russia also spread propaganda and disinformation criticizing the West’s response, including prophesying an imminent collapse of Schengen, NATO, and the EU.26 An underlying, sometimes overt theme, was that authoritarian governments can more effectively control the virus than democracies, which are inherently weak.27 China and Russia used the Capt. Crozier incident — the firing of the commanding officer of a U.S. aircraft carrier after he raised the alarm about a covid-19 outbreak on his ship — as a prime example of the failings of U.S. public administration.28

Medical solidarity

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the EU banned the export of medical supplies and EU member states reimposed border controls.29 Legitimate criticism of this soon turned to disinformation. Russian media praised its own aid to the Western Balkans and countries within the EU even though the Italian newspaper La Stampa discovered that most of the equipment was purchased as normal exports — not received as aid — and that it was mostly faulty.30 A Russian senator played up historical Russian-Polish animosity to push a false story that Poland refused Russian access to Polish airspace while Russia attempted to send humanitarian supplies to Italy.31 Sputnik Italia amplified the disinformation and the narrative received three million Twitter impressions.11 The distribution of narratives differed depending on the target country. In the Balkans, where public opinion is largely supportive of EU accession, Russian media falsely showed Italians replacing EU flags with Russian flags.32 In the developing world, Russian IOs painted Russian and Chinese vaccines as public goods compared with Western pharmaceutical companies who had profit motivations.33

Covid-19 anti-vaxxer narratives

Russian vaccine disinformation appeared as early as January 2020 after a long effort to cultivate relationships with anti-vaccine campaigners.34 Some of the most prolific vaccine disinformation came from a Russian-backed separatist group in Ukraine which claimed that vaccine tests from U.S.-based Moderna killed five Ukrainians.35 This disinformation reached 14 million people by targeting right-wing and left-wing vaccine skeptics.11

In August, Russia announced that it had developed Sputnik V, the world’s first covid-19 vaccine, though safety concerns had not been addressed.36 A state-backed disinformation campaign argued that it was the world’s only safe option.11 Russia was betting that even if the vaccine fails, it would still receive a short-term soft-power victory with non-allies like Mexico and Brazil signing up to buy the vaccine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel considering producing the vaccine in the EU.37 Even though Russia did not join, it also criticized the United States for being irresponsible for not joining the multilateral COVAX effort.38

Engaging with anti-vaxxers, yet simultaneously promoting its own vaccine, exemplifies Russia’s embrace of contradictory conspiracy theories. Forfeiting a singular narrative allows the Kremlin to target a larger population.39 The virus is simultaneously a plague and a hoax, with responses incited including panic, fake cures, and conspiracies about 5G towers.40

Russian Tactics, Distribution Strategies, and Target Audiences

The pandemic has enabled the Kremlin to entrench control over the information environment. While Russia’s IO tactics did not change as noticeably as China’s, the Kremlin continued refining existing tactics, particularly on how to blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate sources and obfuscating reliable information. Overseas, Russian IOs advanced geopolitical goals.

Suppression and surveillance

The Russian government used the pandemic to consistently suppress information about the virus and targeted doctors who criticized the government.41 With technology bought from China, Russian authorities expanded digital surveillance capabilities and tested the use of facial recognition and QR codes for quarantine control.42 While its information space is more open than China’s, Russia has been inspired by China’s model of closed internet standards and cyber sovereignty — supporting international norms that recognize a country’s right to tight control over its internet and censorship of political content.43 Russia learning from Chinese approaches to information control, including China’s export of its closed information system, deserves more research.44

Use of proxies

Russian tactics include using proxies and impersonating real organizations.45 Russian media amplified statements by Italian politicians praising Russian medical equipment.31 In Ukraine, proxies spread panic about evacuees returning from China.46 This led to violent protests and a governor’s resignation.11 Recently, 20 journalists learned they had unwittingly become writers for a Russian-backed outlet called Peace Data [the name is a pun on Russian obscenity] which was impersonating a real media outlet.47 In France, researchers discovered websites of GRU front organizations spreading covid-19 disinformation.48The average viewer would not have noticed the Russian links.11 Websites have removed Russian authors and hidden Russian-language content.14 Pro-Kremlin outlets have begun copying text from other sources to avoid mistakes, using fewer hashtags to avoid detection by natural language processing systems, and blurring or removing watermarks.49

While many individual websites in the pro-Kremlin information environment receive limited engagement, their content is still amplified by more popular sites which makes it challenging to trace disinformation to its source. On Twitter, 1% of Russian disinformation accounts tweeted more than 35% of shared tweets while 0.1% tweeted 18% of shared tweets.50 Russian disinformation is usually already spreading on fringe websites and in online alt-right circles and subsequently amplified by government-backed outlets.51

Targeted approach

Russia also uses diverse tactics and distribution strategies. In countries where Russian is widely spoken, the Kremlin spreads its disinformation through Russian-language TV and proxies like the Russian Orthodox Church.52 For elderly populations, Russia focuses on chain emails instead of social media.53 In the Middle East and Latin America, Russia wants citizens to view RT as a legitimate news source, though it still spreads disinformation through Sputnik Mundo and News Front-Español.54 During the covid-19 pandemic, RT en Español has been largely neutral, sometimes even critical of Russia and China.11

Narrative laundering

Throughout 2020, Russia consistently tied covid-19 IOs to its geopolitical goals, particularly regarding sanctions and the Kremlin’s interests in Russia’s near abroad. Russia argued that Western sanctions were inhumane, and its Foreign Ministry spokesperson even said that sanctions on Venezuela were approaching genocide.55

Ukraine and Georgia have traditionally been testing grounds for Russian hybrid warfare and the pandemic has been no exception. To reduce Ukraine’s maneuverability in peace talks, Russia incited violent protests and used organic covid-19-related protests to portray western Ukrainians as particularly violent and ignorant.56 In the Caucasus, Russian media falsely accused Georgia of exploiting the pandemic to violate the South Ossetian border with EU support.57 Farther afield, Russian outlets amplified narratives already circulating in the West that Syrian relief groups like the White Helmets were using the pandemic to accelerate regime change.11 The Kremlin is particularly adept at amplifying disinformation already circulating in the West. This blurs the lines between foreign and domestic disinformation. Russia had at least some short-term geopolitical success with polls finding that most Serbians falsely believed Russia delivered more aid to their country than the EU.58

Chinese Narratives

The pandemic has put the CCP in a vulnerable position, forcing a turn to more destructive and conspiratorial narratives in an attempt to change global opinion about China’s initial failure to contain covid-19.59 State media and government officials spread disinformation about the origins of covid-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, and this continues into 2021. The CCP insists that the origins of the pandemic are unknown.60 Once China successfully contained the virus within its borders, its propaganda focused on vindicating China’s draconian approach while criticizing the West for its failed response. Finally, China amplified stories about its international leadership, including collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and sending shipments of medical assistance to hard-hit countries. The underlying narrative was that China’s governance model is more effective than the West’s.61

Photo: Workers unload a shipment of Chinese Sinopharm's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as it arrives at Budapest Airport, Hungary, February 16, 2021. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM)/Handout via REUTERS

Photo: Workers unload a shipment of Chinese Sinopharm’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as it arrives at Budapest Airport, Hungary, February 16, 2021. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM)/Handout via REUTERS

The origins of the virus

Starting February 11, 2020, in an early sign that China was attempting to shift blame away from itself, Chinese media dropped any mention of #Wuhan in their Twitter posts about the virus.62 Chinese media started mentioning a now-deleted Japanese TV report arguing that covid-19 might have been present in the United States in 2019.63 On March 12, Zhao Lijian, the spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, retweeted a video which argued that the U.S. military could have brought covid-19 to Wuhan during the 2019 World Military Games.11 Chinese think tanks blamed U.S. military bioweapons labs for the origins of the virus.17 While not recycled to the same extent as Russia’s, these tactics have a history: Mao Zedong blamed the United States for spreading viruses during the Korean War.64

In October, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Prague stated, “China was the first country to report the epidemic, but that does not mean that the epidemic originated in China.”65 They went on to spread disinformation that the virus appeared in many countries before China.11

China’s success in containing the virus

China’s narrative followed the common theme that democracy is messy and ineffective compared with authoritarian systems. In praising its own response to the pandemic, the CCP wanted the world to believe that China’s official data was accurate and transparent, that the outbreak was under control, and that the country could serve as a model.66 To gain legitimacy, Chinese media amplified positive comments from Western leaders like former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin who said that the Chinese government “has manifested extremely effective organization and mobilization ability, which is exactly the advantage of the Chinese system.”67

Like other Chinese narratives about its response to the virus, there was a mixture of potentially truthful propaganda and disinformation. Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, tweeted a photo of a hospital being constructed in 16 hours, but researchers discovered that the photo was in fact of an apartment building.68 By late February, “wolf warrior” diplomats [the term comes from a popular Chinese action movie] became increasingly critical, accusing the West of using covid-19 as an excuse to contain China’s rise.69 In France, the Chinese Embassy called out French authorities for letting the elderly die in their nursing homes.70

Chinese mask diplomacy

To boost its image as an international leader, China sent doctors and medical equipment to other countries. Most Chinese reporting about this was disinformation since the majority of China’s aid was faulty or purchased as normal exports instead of given freely.71 Chinese media also made no distinction between assistance from the government and nominally private Chinese organizations.72 Chinese media and local embassies amplified praise from Europeans thanking China for its support with pro-China sentiment in Italy rising from 10% in January to 52% in March 2020.73 Like Russia, China criticized the EU for its initial ban on the export of medical equipment and the United States for its lack of support for the WHO.74

Chinese Tactics, Distribution Strategies, and Target Audiences

After its initial failure to contain the virus, the CCP quickly attempted to shift blame away from China with a coordinated global disinformation campaign by media and diplomats about the origins of covid-19. Researchers began witnessing Chinese covert IOs, but they are still relatively rudimentary. Like Russia, China is using the pandemic for its geopolitical advantage, including the export of vaccines to the developing world.

Information suppression

Disinformation starts at home, and as early as December 30, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a gag order on covid-19-related topics.75 For the first month of covid-19, there was virtually no reporting from Chinese media about the outbreak due to tight control from the CCP and schedules for editors to publish articles on certain topics.76 Before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first public remarks about the virus on January 21, 2020, state media focused on the U.S. flu outbreak instead of covid-19.77 Once the coronavirus went global, the government rigorously censored international criticism of China while allowing screenshots of inflammatory tweets from Zhao and others to filter downward in the domestic information environment.78 Censorship is not always done directly by the state. Chinese platforms often performed self-censorship because of intermediary liability rules.79

Spreading conspiracies and denying facts

Contrary to its traditional focus on creating one narrative with total certainty, covid-19 prompted China to follow the Russian model of diluting the information environment, particularly to make people question the origins of the virus. After a fourfold increase in their Twitter presence since January 2019, Chinese diplomats conducted a coordinated campaign of complementing disinformation from the Chinese media.80 This coordinated blame-shifting campaign also worked in reverse. Chinese state media outlets amplified favorable narratives, including Zhao’s tweet about the U.S. origins of the virus.81 Chinese diplomats have continued working closely with state media to float new theories on the origins of covid-19. To add a veneer of legitimacy, China has frequently taken words out of context from respected scientists like Dr. Robert Redfield at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Alexander Kekulé at the German Institute for Biosecurity Research.82 The CCP has also used China’s own scientists. In November 2020, scientists affiliated with the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences published a paper claiming that Wuhan was not the first place where covid-19 transmission occurred.11 China’s wolf warrior diplomats have used doctored images to attack those that have criticized this disinformation, particularly Australia.83

Covert digital operations

While still relatively rudimentary, China has used inauthentic social media accounts to amplify positive messages about itself while spreading disinformation and harsh criticism about its adversaries. After China sent assistance to Italy in March 2020, Chinese bots amplified the hashtags #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China Go Italy) and #grazieCina (Thanks China).84 Many of the inauthentic accounts also posted content praising Hong Kong’s leaders and criticizing protesters.85 In September 2020, an uptick in inauthentic videos showed that Chinese actors are not afraid to adopt new tactics.86 So far, most Chinese covert operations have had limited reach since they have been in Chinese and primarily targeted the Chinese diaspora.87 For the few that have also targeted non-Chinese speakers, they have been even less effective since they are targeting the diaspora and English-language audience with the same material.86

Vaccine propaganda and geopolitical goals

China is using the covid-19 pandemic to secure geopolitical benefits, particularly through vaccines. It wants to be the supplier of first resort for developing countries who don’t have the capacity to handle the storage requirements of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.88 Experts believe that China can use its vaccines to bolster economic and political influence in the developing world where countries are struggling to secure vaccines.89

As early as May 2020, Xi was promising to make China’s vaccines a global public good which would be distributed at a reasonable price.90 With the United States shying away from equitable global vaccine distribution efforts, China’s narrative of international leadership is portraying China as the solution to covid-19 instead of the problem.91 China’s focus on the developing world, and Africa in particular, has not been limited to vaccines. Chinese embassies in Africa were the most likely to retweet disinformation about the U.S. origins of the virus, potentially because China believes Africans are more vulnerable to health disinformation after the Soviets spread disinformation about HIV/AIDS.92

In order to improve transparency and counter a history of bribery and poor safety standards, Chinese vaccine makers Sinopharm and Sinovac conducted clinical trials in coordination with other governments.93 Not only do vaccines give China an important soft-power boost, but China is likely attaching strings to the purchases. Uyghur activists are concerned that Turkish promises to step up counterterrorism cooperation along with vaccine purchases will endanger the large Uyghur community in Turkey.94 Other experts are particularly concerned that China will use the pandemic to advance its global governance ambitions through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).95 leaders, Xi mentioned his willingness to create a community of common public health destiny.96 As of January 2021, poor testing results out of Brazil and low public confidence in Chinese vaccines show that the effectiveness of China’s vaccines, and the success of its vaccine diplomacy, is still an open question.97

Photo: A visitor stands near an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, Hubei province, China December 31, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Photo: A visitor stands near an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, Hubei province, China December 31, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Sino-Russian Overlap and Coordination

During the pandemic, researchers have noted several instances of narrative overlap between pro-Kremlin and CCP sources. Both actors borrowed various tactics from each other’s toolkit, but there is, however, very little evidence to support the idea of policy coordination between Russia and China based on their covid-19 IOs.

So far, the only explicit Sino-Russian cooperation in the information environment has been collaboration agreements between state media outlets.98 This collaboration has continued during the pandemic with a China Daily article in December 2020 stating, “Digital media from China and Russia should … jointly fight against attacks and provocations from Western countries, [and] establish a healthy international public opinion environment ….”99 In October 2020, foreign ministers from both countries called for strengthening media cooperation.100 For several years, state media outlets in Russia and China have produced common messaging to counter Western influence and promote positive stories about themselves.98 In the long term, many experts think that this exchange of best practices will deepen through mechanisms like the China-Russia Media Forum as both countries seek to create an alternative information ecosystem.101 State media in both countries can learn from the other; China has moved faster in using its media apparatus to export digital authoritarianism, while Russian media still receives substantially more engagement than China’s.102

Since November 2019, two out of five of the most retweeted outlets by CCP-linked accounts were RT and Sputnik, which allowed for circular amplification of covid-19 disinformation between Russia and China.103 Some of China’s most inflammatory disinformation came from Global Research, a pro-Kremlin conspiracy site.104 This included tweets about the origins of the virus from Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson. China latched on to the Russian narrative that the Lugar Center in Georgia, operated by the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Agency, is part of a secret U.S. bioweapons program.105 Pro-Kremlin media has been largely positive about China, and even though Chinese media sharply criticized the U.S. border closure to Chinese travelers, Russian authorities received little criticism from China when they closed their border.106

Covid-19 meta-narratives were also relatively similar: both countries criticized democracies as corrupt and inept while praising their own global leadership and pointing to a lack of Western leadership.107 Circular amplification and state media collaboration agreements come from the mutual interests driving Russian and Chinese digital influence operations.17 Their complementary geopolitical objectives include undermining liberal democratic norms and institutions, weakening cohesion among democratic allies and partners, reducing U.S. global influence, and advancing their own interests.11 Both countries want a decoupling of the United States and Europe, and they share many of the same political assets in Hungary, Serbia, and the Czech Republic.33 During the pandemic, China joined Russia in calling sanctions inhumane as a result of the virus.108

The West’s failures to respond to covid-19 presented Russia and China with an opportunity for closer cooperation, cooperation that was already on display in 2019 when Russia supported Chinese accusations that the United States was inciting protests in Hong Kong.17

Nuances in covid-19 narratives show that the threat of Sino-Russian IO cooperation is serious, but important differences between the two countries will persist. China placed a much greater emphasis on promoting a shared community and had a larger focus on its global responsibility than Russia.33 Normative affinity often makes it appear that Russia and China have a coordinated approach, even if in reality it is lacking.11 For the foreseeable future, divergent geopolitical outlooks will likely prevent China from acting as aggressively as Russia in the information environment. The beginning of the pandemic provided a prime example, with Russian actors overtly spreading disinformation in January 2020 before China.104 Surprisingly, some experts found a lack of coordination between state-backed media outlets and Russian officials on social media. Potentially due to Russia’s relatively weak soft-power capacity, analysis from Omelas showed that even though at least 14 state-backed Russian outlets and some members of parliament spread covid-19 disinformation, government officials largely refrained from this behavior.28 It remains to be seen whether covid-19 presents a permanent change in China’s approach to the information environment and if its first resort in future crises will be spreading disinformation.


Lessons Learned

Research on Russian and Chinese covid-19 disinformation has uncovered important details about the evolution of malign narratives and tactics. However, important questions regarding definitions and the significance of the covid-19 infodemic remain.

  • The focus on emerging areas of research is too limited. More attention is needed on deepfakes, crowdfunding platforms, as well as machine learning and natural language processing systems;109
  • Researchers concentrate too much on distribution instead of sources. The intentionality and strategic use of disinformation or propaganda narratives also remains underexplored;33
  • China’s party-state is surprisingly transparent about its goals. Researchers need to examine CCP documents and look beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;11
  • The failure to track, catalogue, and analyze disinformation campaigns in local languages is a significant weakness. Content moderation by social media platforms is consistently weaker in non-English-speaking countries;110
  • The combined use of different avenues of influence, not just disinformation, remains underexplored. Russia and China have utilized off- and online tools;
  • Researchers underexplored vaccine disinformation for most of 2020 and largely focused on Russia instead of China. In 2021, China has aggressively criticized Western vaccines, particularly Pfizer-BioNTech;111
  • Until we understand the long-term impact of infodemics and prioritize accordingly, we risk embarking on a wild-goose chase;33 and
  • While significant overlap was present during covid-19 IOs, the extent and trajectory of Sino-Russian convergence or collaboration is still unclear.

Policy Relevance

  • For liberal democracies, the free flow of information is a strength and a weakness. It is also a target: for the regimes in Russia and China, the existence of open societies is an existential threat.112 For all these reasons, infodemics will still feature in authoritarian toolkits even when the pandemic abates;
  • Disinformation has a direct effect — in the case of covid-19, hampering public health provision — but it also has an indirect effect, weakening trust and cohesion and thus making societies more vulnerable to future IOs.26 Russia has already weaponized this dangerous feedback loop to divide and weaken societies. China could do the same;
  • If China is able to shift blame for the pandemic, the world may see only a success story instead of the failures of its authoritarian system which allowed the virus to spread so rapidly in the first place;
  • With China’s IO tactics increasingly converging with Russia’s playbook, it has never been more important to bring Russia, China, and disinformation experts together. An implicit division of labor and circular amplification of covid-19 disinformation could soon lead to explicit cooperation; and
  • In a previously clear implicit division of labor, Russia focused on security and energy, while China exploited its advantages in telecommunications and infrastructure. China’s rise is changing this, notably in Central and Eastern Europe. This, along with competitive vaccine diplomacy, could add tension to the Sino-Russian relationship and present Western policymakers with opportunities.


Countering Russian and Chinese IOs will require a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach across the transatlantic space. This includes civil society, media organizations, social media platforms, think tanks, and government agencies. Western countermeasures are still limited, while the threat is grave. It is time to stop admiring the problem.

By Edward Lucas, Jake Morris, Corina Rebegea, for CEPA

  1. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Converging Chinese and Russian Disinformation Compounds Threat to Democracy,” Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence (National Endowment for Democracy, May 26, 2020), []
  2. Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). []
  3. Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, “The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation,” Computational Propaganda Research Project (Oxford University, September 2019),; “Minds Besieged: Digital Warfare Against the American Electorate,” Omelas, December 2020, []
  4. “GEC Counter-Disinformation Dispatch #6: Using Pseudo-Academic Online Journals to Amplify Fringe Voices,” Global Engagement Center (U.S. Department of State, September 28, 2020), []
  5. Jakub Kalenský, “Six Reasons the Kremlin Spreads Disinformation about the Coronavirus,” Atlantic Council, March 30, 2020, []
  6. Jessica Brandt and Amber Frankland, “Leaks, Lies, and Altered Tape: Russia’s Maturing Information Manipulation Playbook,” Alliance For Securing Democracy (German Marshall Fund of the United States, October 17, 2020), []
  7. Daniel Kliman et al., “Dangerous Synergies: Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence Operations,” Center for a New American Security, May 7, 2020, []
  8. Jessica Brandt, “Beijing’s Viral Disinformation Activities,” Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence (National Endowment for Democracy, April 2, 2020), []
  9. Lucrezia Poggetti et al., “How Is the Chinese Communist Party Manipulating the Global Pandemic?,” European Values Center for Security Policy, March 26, 2020, []
  10. Sarah Cook, “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence Since 2017,” Freedom House, January 15, 2020, []
  11. Ibid [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  12. Nithin Coca, “Disinformation from China Floods Taiwan’s Most Popular Messaging App,” Coda Story (Coda Media, October 7, 2020), []
  13. Ivana Karásková, “China’s Propaganda and Disinformation Campaigns in Central Europe,” Association for International Affairs, August 31, 2020, []
  14. Global Engagement Center, “Pseudo-Academic Online Journals” [] []
  15. Omelas, “Minds Besieged: Digital Warfare” [] []
  16. Sarah Cook, “Beijing’s Coronavirus Propaganda Has Both Foreign and Domestic Targets,” Freedom House, April 20, 2020, []
  17. Kliman et al, “Dangerous Synergies” [] [] [] []
  18. Cook, “Beijing’s Global Megaphone” []
  19. Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “Russia’s ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model,” RAND (RAND Corporation, July 11, 2016), []
  20. Jessica Brandt and Bret Schafer, “Five Things to Know About Beijing’s Disinformation Approach,” Alliance For Securing Democracy (German Marshall Fund of the United States, March 30, 2020), []
  21. “Throwing Coronavirus Disinfo At The Wall To See What Sticks,” EUvsDisinformation, April 2, 2020, []
  22. Edward Lucas et al., “Infektion Points: Russian and Chinese Disinformation on the Pandemic,” Center for European Policy Analysis, March 27, 2020, []
  23. Mathieu Boulègue, “In a COVID-19 World, Russia Sticks to International Distancing,” Chatham House, March 29, 2020, []
  24. Jakub Kalenský, “Russian Coronavirus Disinformation Campaigns,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (Atlantic Council, March 26, 2020), []
  25. “Viral Overload: An Analysis of Covid-19 Information Operations,” Omelas, May 12, 2020, []
  26. Kalenský, “Six Reasons” [] []
  27. “EEAS Special Report Update: Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation around the COVID-19/Coronavirus Pandemic,” EUvsDisinformation, April 24, 2020, []
  28. Omelas, “Viral Overload” [] []
  29. Henry Foy and Michael Peel, “Russia Sends Italy Coronavirus Aid to Underline Historic Ties,” Financial Times (Nikkei, March 23, 2020), []
  30. Jonathan Bright et al., “Coronavirus Coverage by State-Backed English-Language News Sources: Understanding Chinese, Iranian, Russian and Turkish Government Media ,” Oxford Internet Institute (Oxford University, April 8, 2020),; “Russia Exploits Italian Coronavirus Outbreak to Expand Its Influence,” Medium (Digital Forensic Research Lab, March 30, 2020),; Daniel Bush, “Two Faces of Russian Information Operations: Coronavirus Coverage in Spanish,” Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (Stanford University, July 30, 2020),; Omelas, “Viral Overload” []
  31. Medium, “Russia Exploits Coronavirus Outbreak” [] []
  32. “Western Balkans Poll Shows Strong Support for EU,” International Republican Institute, June 2, 2020,; Jakub Janda and Richard Kraemer, “Beware a China-Russia Nexus in Central Europe Amid US-EU Neglect,” Just Security (New York University, June 17, 2020), []
  33. Expert working group convened by CEPA [] [] [] [] []
  34. “Vaccine Hesitancy and Pro-Kremlin Opportunism,” EUvsDisinformation, April 16, 2020, []
  35. Elise Thomas, Albert Zhang, and Jake Wallis, “Viral Videos: Covid-19, China and Inauthentic Influence on Facebook,” International Cyber Policy Centre (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, September 2020), []
  36. Judyth Twigg, “Vladimir Putin Has a Vaccine, and He’s Rushing to Share It: As America Retreats from World Affairs, Russia Is Promising Other Nations Help on the Pandemic.,” New York Times, October 13, 2020, []
  37. Twigg, “Putin has a Vaccine”; Hans von der Burchard, “Merkel ‘Open’ to Producing Russian Coronavirus Vaccine in the EU,” POLITICO, January 6, 2021, []
  38. Twigg, “Putin Has a Vaccine”; COVAX is an effort run by the World Health Organization to ensure the equitable global distribution of vaccines. []
  39. Marcus Kolga, “Foreign Actors Are Spreading COVID Disinformation to Destabilize Our Democracy and Polarize Our Society: Marcus Kolga in the Vancouver Sun,” MacDonald-Laurier Institute, October 8, 2020, []
  40. “Disinformation Can Kill,” EUvsDisinformation, March 26, 2020, []
  41. “Suppressing Democracy in the Name of Coronavirus,” Medium (Digital Forensic Research Lab, March 27, 2020), []
  42. George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin Deploys New Authoritarian Controls during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2020,; Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting Digital Authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese Models,” Brookings Institution, August 27, 2019, []
  43. Justin Sherman, “Russia Is Trying Something New to Isolate Its Internet From the Rest of the World,” Slate (New America, September 25, 2020),; Justin Sherman, “How Much Cyber Sovereignty Is Too Much Cyber Sovereignty?,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 30, 2019, []
  44. Sherman, “Russia is Trying Something New” []
  45. Lily Hay Newman, “Russia Is Learning How to Bypass Facebook’s Disinfo Defenses,” Wired (Condé Nast, March 5, 2020),; Brandt and Frankland, “Russia’s Maturing Information Manipulation” []
  46. George Barros, “Viral Disinformation: The Kremlin’s Coronavirus Information Operation in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 11, 2020, []
  47. Alicia Wanless and Laura Walters, “How Journalists Become an Unwitting Cog in the Influence Machine,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 13, 2020, []
  48. “How Two Information Portals Hide Their Ties to the Russian News Agency Inforos,” EUvsDisinfo, June 2020, []
  49. Brandt and Frankland, “Russia’s Maturing Information Manipulation” []
  50. “Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem,” Global Engagement Center (U.S. Department of State, August 2020), []
  51. Michael Weiss and Marcus Kolga, “Straight Talk: Building Resilience Against the Threat of Disinformation,” MacDonald-Laurier Institute, August 2020,[UNIQID. []
  52. Madalin Necsutu, “COVID-19 Provides New Material for Russian Anti-EU Disinformation,” Balkan Insight (BIRN, September 22, 2020), []
  53. “Op-Ed: The European Union’s Deficient Response to COVID-19 Disinformation,” Medium (Digital Forensic Research Lab, April 13, 2020), []
  54. Bush, “Russian IOs in Spanish” []
  55. Mason Clark, Aleksei Zimnitca, and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and Its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020, []
  56. Barros, “Viral Disinformation: Ukraine” []
  57. “EEAS Special Report Update: Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation Around the COVID-19 Pandemic,” EUvsDisinformation, April 1, 2020, []
  58. Majda Ruge and Nicu Popescu, “Serbia and Coronavirus Propaganda: High Time for a Transactional EU,” European Council on Foreign Relations, June 4, 2020, []
  59. Jessica Brandt and Torrey Taussig, “The Kremlin’s Disinformation Playbook Goes to Beijing: China Has Abandoned Its Low Profile for a High-Stakes Strategy,” Brookings Institution, May 19, 2020, []
  60. Javier C. Fernandez, “China Peddles Falsehoods to Obscure Origin of Covid Pandemic: To Push the Idea That the Virus Didn’t Come from China, the Government Has Misrepresented Experts’ Remarks and given Dubious Theories the Veneer of Science,” New York Times, December 6, 2020, []
  61. EUvsDisinfo, “4/24 EEAS Special Report Update”; Omelas, “Viral Overload” []
  62. “Chinese State Media Seeks to Influence International Perceptions of COVID-19 Pandemic,” Insikt Group (Recorded Future, March 30, 2020), []
  63. Vanessa Molter and Graham Webster, “Virality Project (China): Coronavirus Conspiracy Claims,” Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (Stanford University, March 31, 2020), []
  64. Renee Diresta et al., “Telling China’s Story: The Chinese Communist Party’s Campaign to Shape Global Narratives,” Hoover Instituion (Stanford University, July 20, 2020), []
  65. “A Spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the Czech Republic Answered a Journalist’s Question Regarding the Czech Minister of Health’s Statements on the Origin of Coronavirus,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Czech Republic, October 23, 2020, []
  66. Cédric Alviani et al., “The Big Question: What Does COVID-19 Reveal About Mis-and Disinformation in Times of Crisis?,” National Endowment for Democracy, April 17, 2020, []
  67. Filip Šebok, “Inside of China’s Global Propaganda Campaign on COVID-19,” China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (AMO, March 16, 2020), []
  68. Peter W. Singer, Peter Wood, and Alex Stone, “How China Is Working to Quarantine the Truth About the Coronavirus,” Defense One, February 9, 2020, []
  69. Recorded Future, “Chinese State Media” []
  70. Karásková, “China’s Propaganda and Disinformation” []
  71. Lucas et al, “Russian and Chinese Disinformation”; “Visegrád Group: Disinformation Campaigns on COVID-19,” Atlantic Council, May 6, 2020, []
  72. Stefan Vladisavljev, “A Friend in Need Is a Friend Indeed – Belgrade Leans Closer to Beijing in the Fight Against the COVID-19 Epidemic,” China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (AMO, March 19, 2020), []
  73. EUvsDisinfo, “4/24 EEAS Special Report Update” []
  74. Vladisavljev, “A Friend in Need”; Thomas et al, “Viral Videos: Covid-19 []
  75. Masashi Crete-Nishihata et al., “Censored Contagion II: A Timeline of Information Control on Chinese Social Media During COVID-19,” The Citizen Lab (Munk School of Global Affairs and Global Policy, August 25, 2020), []
  76. Qian Gang, “As An Epidemic Raged, What Kept Party Media Busy?,” China Media Project (University of Hong Kong, January 30, 2020), []
  77. Singer et al, “How China is Working” []
  78. Crete-Nishihata et al, “Timeline of Information Control”; Cook, “Foreign and Domestic Control” []
  79. Crete-Nishihata et al, “Timeline of Information Control” []
  80. Philip Howard et al., “Online Event: Lie Machines: How Disinformation Threatens Democracy and How to Save It,” National Endowment for Democracy, June 10, 2020,; Laura Rosenberger, Alina Polyakova, and Quinta Jurecic, “Podcast: Laura Rosenberger on Chinese Information Operations,” Brookings, June 22, 2020, []
  81. Cook, “Foreign and Domestic Control”. []
  82. Molter and Webster, “Coronavirus Conspiracy Claims”; Fernandez, “China Peddles Falsehoods” []
  83. Daniel Hurst and Helen Davidson, “China Rejects Australian PM’s Call to Apologize for ‘Repugnant’ Tweet,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, November 30, 2020), []
  84. Francesco Bechis and Gabriele Carrer, “How China Unleashed Twitter Bots to Spread COVID-19 Propaganda in Italy,” Formiche, March 31, 2020, []
  85. Diresta et al, “Telling China’s Story” []
  86. Thomas et al, “Viral Videos: Covid-19” [] []
  87. Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li, “How China Built a Twitter Propaganda Machine Then Let It Loose on Coronavirus,” ProPublica, March 26, 2020, []
  88. “Covid: What Do We Know about China’s Coronavirus Vaccines?,” BBC News, December 30, 2020, []
  89. Neil Edwards, “Vaccine Diplomacy: China and SinoPharm in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 6, 2021, []
  90. Ibid; BBC News, “What do we Know?” []
  91. Edwards, “China and SinoPharm in Africa”; Joshua Kurlantzick, “How China Ramped Up Disinformation Efforts During the Pandemic,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 10, 2020, []
  92. Matt Schrader, “Analyzing China’s Coronavirus Propaganda Messaging in Europe,” Alliance For Securing Democracy (German Marshall Fund of the United States, March 20, 2020), []
  93. Emily Rauhala, Eva Dou, and Robyn Dixon, “Chinese and Russian Vaccines Remain Unproven – but Desperate Countries Plan to Use Them Anyway,” The Washington Post, December 19, 2020, []
  94. Isobel Cockerell, “Uyghurs in Turkey Fear China Is Leveraging Its Covid-19 Vaccine to Have Them Deported to Xinjiang,” Coda Story (Coda Media, January 13, 2021), []
  95. Poggetti et al, “CCP Manipulating Global Pandemic”) During a virtual forum with 17+1 ((The 17+1 Initiative is a Chinese-led infrastructure and influence platform for countries in Central and Eastern Europe []
  96. Poggetti et al, “CCP Manipulating Global Pandemic”; Šebok, “Inside China’s Propaganda Campaign” []
  97. Yen Nee Lee, “Brazil Researchers Now Say China’s Sinovac Vaccine Is 50% Effective – Lower than Announced Earlier,” CNBC (NBC Universal, January 12, 2021),; Cockerell, “China is Leveraging Covid-19 Vaccine” []
  98. Kendall-Taylor and Shullman, “Chinese and Russian Disinformation” [] []
  99. Ren Qi, “Chinese, Russian Media Have Role in Virus Fight,” China Daily, December 19, 2020, []
  100. Katja Drinhausen and Mayya Solonina, “Chinese and Russian Media Partner to ‘Tell Each Other’s Stories Well,’” Mercator Institute for China Studies, December 22, 2020, []
  101. Ibid; Kliman et al, “Dangerous Synergies” []
  102. Stephen Blank, J. Michael Cole, and Balkan Devlen, “Know Thy Enemy: Understanding the Threat Posed by Russia and China in the Post-Covid Era,” MacDonald-Laurier Institute, September 2020,; Diresta et al, “Telling China’s Story” []
  103. Brandt, “Beijing’s Viral Disinformation Activities”; Brandt and Schafer, “Five Things to Know” []
  104. Global Engagement Center, “Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation” [] []
  105. Brian Whitmore, Donald N. Jensen, and John Sipher, “Kremlin Pathogens: The Power Vertical Podcast at CEPA,” Center for European Policy Analysis, June 5, 2020, []
  106. Poggetti et al, “CCP Manipulating Global Pandemic” []
  107. Bright, “Coronavirus Coverage” []
  108. Clark et al, “Russia in Review” []
  109. Renée DiResta, “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” The Atlantic, September 20, 2020,; “How COVID-19 Conspiracists and Extremists Use Crowdfunding Platforms to Fund Their Activities,” EU DisinfoLab, October 1, 2020, []
  110. Jennifer Baker, “Europe’s Disinformation Epidemic: Who’s Checking the Facts?: Heinrich Böll Stiftung: Brussels Office – European Union,” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, May 6, 2020, []
  111. Gerry Shih, “China Turbocharges Bid to Discredit Western Vaccines, Spread Virus Conspiracy Theories,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2021, []
  112. Blank et al, “Know Thy Enemy” []