Pentagon Ran Secret Anti-Vax Campaign in Philippines While Censoring Americans Who Criticized Covid Shots

(The Defender)—The Pentagon in 2021 operated a secret propaganda campaign to disparage the Chinese-made Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in the Philippines, a Reuters investigation revealed Friday.

The secret campaign to counter what the U.S. “perceived as China’s growing influence in the Philippines,” launched during the same time the U.S. government was telling Americans COVID-19 vaccines were “safe and effective” and censoring vaccine critics, alleging they were spreading “misinformation.”

Sinovac was the first available COVID-19 vaccine in the Philippines in 2021, while vaccines from U.S. companies such as Pfizer and Moderna weren’t available until mid-2022.

Campaign ‘aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines’

According to Reuters, the campaign at first “aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid” provided by China using “phony internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos,” but then “morphed into an anti-vax campaign.”

The campaign began in the spring of 2020 and was not limited to the Philippines — it expanded beyond Southeast Asia before it was terminated in mid-2021.

“A key part of the strategy: amplify the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China’s shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law,” Reuters reported.

The campaign was based on the principles of psychological warfare and was operated out of “trailers and squat buildings” at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

There, “U.S. military personnel and contractors would use anonymous accounts on X, Facebook and other social media to spread what became an anti-vax message,” Reuters reported, noting that the facility remains the U.S. Department of Defense’s “clandestine propaganda factory.”

The “contractors” in question included defense contractor General Dynamics IT. Reuters accused the company of employing “sloppy tradecraft, taking inadequate steps to hide the origin of the fake accounts” created on social media platforms for the propaganda campaign.

The Reuters investigation identified at least 300 such accounts on X — formerly Twitter — almost all of which were created in the summer of 2020 and centered on the slogan #Chinaangvirus, which is Tagalog for “China is the virus.”

Examples of the tweets generated by the accounts, which questioned not just the Sinovac vaccine but other COVID-19 pandemic measures, such as facemasks and the use of PPE, include:

  • “COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don’t trust China!”
  • “From China — PPE, Face Mask, Vaccine: FAKE. But the Coronavirus is real.”
  • “Can you trust China, which tries to hide that its vaccine contains pork gelatin and distributes it in Central Asia and other Muslim countries where many people consider such a drug haram?”

The accounts had “tens of thousands of followers during the program,” Reuters reported, and came at a time when vaccine skepticism was high in the Philippines, leading the country’s then-president, Rodrigo Duterte, to threaten the unvaccinated with arrest. Duterte requested — and was granted — priority access to Sinovac.

This “anti-vax” campaign was launched by the U.S. government even as, in the U.S., the government helped fund behavioral psychology efforts — also known as “nudging” — “to increase uptake of COVID-19 vaccines and other recommended public health measures by countering mis- and disinformation.”

The U.S. government has acknowledged the existence of its Southeast Asia propaganda campaign.

“A senior Defense Department official acknowledged the U.S. military engaged in secret propaganda to disparage China’s vaccine in the developing world, but the official declined to provide details,” Reuters reported, citing a Pentagon spokeswoman who said that “a variety of platforms” were used “to counter those malign influence attacks aimed at the U.S., allies, and partners.”

The spokeswoman also claimed the efforts were in response to a “disinformation campaign” China launched “to falsely blame the United States for the spread of COVID-19.”

While U.S. operated ‘phony’ social media accounts abroad, ‘bots’ blamed for spreading ‘anti-vax’ messages in the U.S.

Citing a 2023 study published in Vaccines (Basel) that concluded when people become skeptical about one vaccine, that skepticism tends to extend to other vaccines, Reuters suggested that the Pentagon’s campaign in Southeast Asia may have decreased vaccination rates in those countries.

However, this was done as part of a broader geopolitical effort, according to Reuters, noting that while the U.S. was already engaged in such operations before the pandemic, “COVID-19 galvanized the drive to wage psychological operations against China,” citing a former senior Pentagon official who called the pandemic a “bolt of energy.”

Reuters cited claims made by the Chinese government beginning in 2020 that the U.S. was responsible for the origin or spread of the virus in China and worldwide.

At the same time, as Duterte developed closer relations with China early during the pandemic, leading to his government attaining priority access to Sinovac, “U.S. military leaders feared that China’s COVID diplomacy and propaganda could draw other Southeast Asian countries … closer to Beijing,” Reuters reported.

An order signed in 2019 by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, along with a Pentagon spending bill Congress passed that year, “paved the way for the launch of the U.S. military propaganda campaign,” Reuters added.

Reuters noted that the U.S. military is prohibited from targeting Americans with propaganda. Reuters said it found no evidence the Pentagon’s influence operation did so, implying that there is no prohibition in U.S. law against the operation of such propaganda campaigns outside the country.

But, as the Pentagon and U.S. military waged the campaign in Southeast Asia, U.S. government officials touted COVID-19 vaccines as “safe and effective,” accused vaccine opponents of spreading “misinformation,” and urged social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to surveil or censor accounts engaging in such messaging.

And in 2021, the U.S. government implemented vaccine mandates domestically, for corporate workers, federal workers and military service members.

The domestic mandates came in the second half of 2021, and only after the U.S. government appears to have switched gears on using any rhetoric that could be construed as anti-vaccine, even outside the country’s borders.

According to Reuters, “By spring 2021, the National Security Council ordered the military to stop all anti-vaccine messaging,” citing a former senior military officer who said, “We were told we needed to be pro-vaccine, pro all vaccines.”

In 2021, public health experts and the media also blamed “bots” — or fake social media accounts — and figures such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman on leave of Children’s Health Defense — for spreading “lies” about the COVID-19 vaccines on social media in the U.S.

According to Reuters, Facebook executives expressed concern to the Pentagon in the summer of 2020, saying that the company “had easily identified the military’s phony accounts,” which it said were “violating Facebook’s policies” and were “spreading COVID misinformation.”

In response, “The military argued that many of its fake accounts were being used for counterterrorism and asked Facebook not to take down the content, according to two people familiar with the exchange. The Pentagon pledged to stop spreading COVID-related propaganda, and some of the accounts continued to remain active on Facebook,” according to Reuters.

“The anti-vax campaign continued into 2021 as Biden took office,” Reuters reported.

While Big Tech companies may have expressed some concern about the Pentagon’s operations, the “Twitter Files” and “Facebook Files” revealed documents indicating these platforms collaborated with the FBI and other government agencies to censor COVID-19 counternarratives domestically.

Reuters reported that a 2022 report by the Stanford Internet Observatory flagged some of the social media accounts the Pentagon developed as “pro-Western bots.”

Yet according to the “Twitter Files,” the Stanford Internet Observatory, via its Virality Project, worked with Twitter and U.S. government agencies to develop an internal “ticketing system” for tweets opposing COVID-19 narratives to be further scrutinized for their content.

Francis Boyle, J.D., Ph.D., professor of international law at the University of Illinois, told The Defender he finds it “remarkable that the Biden administration ordered the Pentagon to run a propaganda campaign” in favor of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. at the same time that it was operating its propaganda campaign in Southeast Asia.

Government used social media tactics developed during its ‘War on Terror’

According to Reuters, the U.S. used social media misinformation tactics it originally developed during the “War on Terror.” Reuters noted that in 2001, “the Pentagon began to wage a more ambitious kind of psychological combat previously associated only with the CIA.”

This included the creation of “front news outlets,” paying off “prominent local figures” and even funding “television soap operas in order to turn local populations against militant groups.”

“By 2010, the military began using social media tools, leveraging phony accounts to spread messages of sympathetic local voices — themselves often secretly paid by the United States government,” Reuters reported.

These efforts initially included the development of online news websites but, according to Reuters, now encompass “a sprawling ecosystem of social media influencers, front groups and covertly placed digital advertisements to influence overseas audiences.”

But while the U.S. military and Pentagon applied such tactics, developed as a counterterrorism effort following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, domestic critics of COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates were sometimes placed under FBI surveillance.