Fake warnings that President Donald Trump was locking down the country spread through text messages and social media platforms in March were pushed out with help from Chinese operatives, The New York Times reports.
The misinformation went viral hitting millions of social media accounts and sent Americans into a panic. Within 48 hours, the White House’s National Security Council tweeted that the news was “FAKE.”
U.S. intelligence agencies determined the messages were spread with assistance from Chinese operatives, the newspaper reports.
The New York Times spoke to officials from six different agencies. Two of them told the newspaper they didn’t think the Chinese operatives created the messages, but amplified the spread of existing ones.
Where the messages actually originated from is unclear, according to the New York Times report.
One of the false messages cited it had inside information from a source in the Department of Homeland Security that the Trump Administration was about to shut down the entire country.
“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” the fake message stated. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”
The warnings went viral on social media platforms like Facebook and through text. The spread of the false reports via cellphone messaging alarmed some intelligence officials who told the newspaper they hadn’t seen that tactic used before.
One way the messages were disseminated was similar to a technique used by Russia-backed trolls, the officials said. The users create fake social media accounts to push out the messages that are then shared by people spreading the fake news further.
Because the messages captured mass attention quickly, Americans were actually the ones doing the work of continuing the spread of the fake news for the foreign agents, officials said.
Officials said the Chinese agents also were using encrypted messaging apps, including WhatsApp, which are harder for researchers and law enforcement officers to track compared to social media.
A senior American official told the newspaper intelligence agencies are also looking into whether spies in China’s diplomatic missions in the United States played a part in spreading the fake lockdown messages.
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