US intelligence agencies claim Chinese agents are working to amplify messages that cause panic, while the first report of a cell tower being vandalized has emerged.

As arguably the most significant global crisis since World War 2 progresses, the public appetite for crazy theories and salacious gossip continues to grow, alongside a perfectly reasonable thirst for the latest news. This is certainly the biggest crisis of the internet and social media era, so every type of information is being spread with unprecedented speed and scope.

Anxiety tends to drive suggestibility, as awareness of danger is heightened alongside an increased need for reassurance. According to a New York Times report, US intelligence agencies are worried that those with an interest in sowing panic among the US population are actively seeking to spread pieces of information that may do so.

Six unnamed US officials told the NYT they reckon Chinese operatives are starting to act in this manner, which is reminiscent of the kind of mischief that has been associated with Russia for some time. Specifically they’re suspected of using bogus phone and social media accounts to get the ball rolling on already existing to make sure they gain traction.

A major cause of domestic friction in the US is the lockdown imposed on most of the country in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. Civil liberties are a foundation of US culture in a more profound way than much of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, so its citizens tend to be more instinctively opposed to being told what to do by the state. As a result there are already protests against the lockdown in some parts of the country, which are presumably being fuelled by rhetoric from the President, urging some states to open up.

The US President doesn’t seem to have commented on these allegations, perhaps conscious of his own prolific use of social media to further his interests, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed them out of hand. However, Trump has been keen to point the finger of blame for the crisis at China and tensions between the two countries have undoubtedly been heightened by it.

What’s not clear is whether deliberate misinformation played a role in the vandalization of a Verizon cell site in New Jersey, as spotted by Light Reading. The vandals haven’t been caught, so we can’t be sure what specific grievances they have against the cell site, but it’s hard to believe the lunacy regarding COVID-19 and 5G that has gripped much of Europe didn’t play a part in their thinking.

The longer these unprecedented lockdowns continue, the greater the probability of significant civil disobedience. While hostile foreign powers may be seeking to stoke panic, attempts to censor such messaging are not only futile, they may well serve to augment existing paranoia. The anonymous US officials who briefed the NYT may have been hoping to unite the country in the face of a common enemy, but they are paradoxically also adding to the flow of unsubstantiated gossip they claim to be fighting against.

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