Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race

As part of a joint research project by the DFRLab and the Associated Press, this report examines the information environments of four countries – China, the United States, Russia and Iran – during the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak and the false narratives that took hold there. The report focuses on how false narratives about the origins of the virus spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives. 

As became clear in the report’s analysis, these competing narratives resulted in an escalatory series of finger pointing, with countries blaming one another as the source of the virus, including accusations it was developed in a lab and spread intentionally. While these narratives lacked any evidence, they took on a life of their own, becoming part of the global informational chaos surrounding the pandemic – what the World Health Organization has termed an infodemic.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news, documenting human rights abuses, and building digital resilience worldwide.