State Department to face fresh questions in Senate about coronavirus misinformation online

At a hearing Thursday, Booker intends to question Lea Gabrielle, the State Department official who oversaw that work, about why the agency had not released more information publicly — and who the government thinks is “responsible for spreading these falsehoods, for what purpose, and what effect it has had,” according to early remarks shared with The Washington Post.

“As people here in the U.S. and across the globe turned to social media for information about this looming threat, they instead found lies from malicious actors preying on the vulnerability of innocent people,” Booker plans to say.

The senator’s questions come as part of a broader congressional inquiry into the Global Engagement Center, an arm of the State Department that fights propaganda abroad. The agency’s work has taken on greater significance in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign, four years after Russian agents sought to weaponize social media to undermine the 2016 race.

Gabrielle, the center’s coordinator, plans to tell lawmakers that Russia and China represent ever-growing threats online. The Kremlin, in particular, “seeks to weaken its adversaries by manipulating the information environment in nefarious ways, polarizing domestic political conversations, and attempting to destroy the public’s faith in good governance, independent media, and democratic principles,” she plans to say, according to written testimony obtained early by The Post.

In February, a top State Department official accused Russia of deploying similar tactics around coronavirus, spreading falsehoods that may stoke panic or undermine health officials’ response to the deadly outbreak. But the U.S. government has offered no public evidence of its claims, sparking criticism from tech companies that say they remain in the dark about potential Kremlin meddling.

Adding to the confusion, the State Department report on coronavirus obtained by The Post also did not mention Russia or any other foreign actor. Instead, it concluded only that networks of accounts had “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity,” such as through the use of automation.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Spokespeople for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is presiding over the hearing, also did not respond to requests.

The Global Engagement Center’s analysis on the coronavirus focused on a three-week period, around the time the World Health Organization declared coronavirus an international emergency. The State Department agency studied millions of tweets in countries excluding the United States. In total, known conspiracy theories amounted to about 7 percent of the Twitter conversation over that period, leading the State Department to conclude that these falsehoods were “potentially impactful on the broader social media conversation.”

The tweets themselves floated a number of harmful conspiracies — suggesting, for example, that the coronavirus had been created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or was the result of a bioweapon. Some of the tweets linked to YouTube videos, according to the State Department document, suggesting that the problem went beyond Twitter.

“As people here in the U.S. and across the globe turned to social media for information about this looming threat, they instead found lies from malicious actors preying on the vulnerability of innocent people,” Booker will say.

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