Francisco Seco/Pool Reuters
BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday accused China of a concerted effort to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, lumping it with the Kremlin as a global scofflaw seeking to sow divisions in European societies.
It was the European Union’s highest-level and most forceful criticism yet of the way Beijing has handled its messaging about the pandemic. The bloc, along with individual European capitals, has been struggling to strike a balance between the United States and China, two rivals that are increasingly at odds on a range of security and diplomatic issues, including the pandemic response.
“The pandemic showed that disinformation does not only harm the health of our citizens, but also the health of our democracies,” Vera Jourova, the senior E.U. official charged with rule-of-law issues, told reporters, unveiling a list of recommendations for the 27 E.U. member states to help promote facts and combat misinformation.
“We are clearly mentioning Russia and China,” she said. “If we have evidence, we should not shy away from naming and shaming.”
[Coronavirus infections haven’t spiked since Europe loosened lockdowns. There are many theories about why.]
The warning came as E.U. countries have clashed with China on the coronavirus response. China moved aggressively to capitalize on E.U. disunity in the first weeks after the pandemic hit Europe, rushing supplies and experts to Italy and amplifying a message to Italians that Europeans were not showing solidarity with them. Later, the website of the Chinese Embassy in France made false claims that workers at homes for the elderly had abandoned their posts and left residents to die.
European and U.S. policymakers have long accused Russia of specific and strategic efforts to use false or misleading information to exploit divisions within democratic societies and promote its own interests. But until the pandemic, they had not accused China of such a coordinated campaign.
“Russia and China have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the E.U., its neighborhood, and globally,” the European Commission said in a statement announcing the effort to combat disinformation.
It also called on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to strengthen its fact-checking operation and to label and combat inaccurate information on their sites. Several companies are already taking part in a voluntary E.U. transparency initiative that attempts to make the sources and narratives of disinformation more transparent. But officials on Wednesday asked for monthly reports, instead of the current intermittent schedule, and for more robust efforts overall.
They also said that the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing service planned to join the initiative.
[China’s bid to repair its coronavirus-hit image is backfiring in the West]
The E.U. has been walking a fine line with China, wary of jeopardizing Chinese investments in European economies at a time when the pandemic has inflicted grievous harm. European leaders have also been seeking Chinese cooperation on the scientific effort to combat covid-19. E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke Tuesday to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to set up a virtual summit between top E.U. and Chinese leaders, which they hope can take place later this month.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry, Europe is not going to embark on any kind of Cold War with China,’ ” Borrell said Wednesday, speaking alongside Jourova.
But the bloc named China as a “systemic rival” in a strategy report last year, a step that many policymakers viewed as an escalation and a recognition that European countries were no longer looking at China as a benign partner with relatively limited foreign policy ambitions.
In April, E.U. lawmakers criticized the E.U. foreign policy agency for softening a draft version of a report on Chinese and Russian disinformation before its public release following sharp pressure from Beijing. E.U. leaders at the time denied that they were capitulating to China, and the report still criticized Beijing for seeding disinformation among E.U. member states.
[E.U. defends handling of China relations after Beijing censors op-ed written by bloc’s ambassadors]
Wednesday’s announcement was not entirely confined to Russia and China: Disinformation from the White House also made a cameo. In a fact sheet about the new E.U. initiatives, officials noted that one example of disinformation was a “false claim” such as “drinking bleach of pure alcohol can cure the coronavirus infections.”
That passage did not call out President Trump by name, but he had suggested, falsely, during a White House briefing in April that bleach injections might be an effective way to kill the coronavirus.
Jourova also praised Twitter for applying fact-checking warnings to two of Trump’s recent tweets and said she would like it to take the same approach with European politicians.
“Twitter did not remove any declaration of Mr. President Trump, they just added the facts,” she said. “We should not rely on just one authoritative declaration when it’s possible to add some facts.”
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