Philippine DOH Wants Answers on US ‘Anti-Vax’ Influence Campaign

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Philippine DOH Wants Answers on US ‘Anti-Vax’ Influence Campaign

According to a Reuters investigation, the Pentagon used social media accounts to sow doubt about China’s Sinovac vaccine.

Philippine DOH Wants Answers on US ‘Anti-Vax’ Influence Campaign
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The Philippine Department of Health is seeking an investigation into an alleged secret U.S. military influence campaign to counter what Washington perceived as China’s growing influence in the Philippines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the weekend, the Reuters news agency published an explosive investigation revealing a clandestine Pentagon operation intended to discredit China’s Sinovac vaccine, which Beijing sold and donated in large quantities to the Philippine government. The report was based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S officials, and military contractors, as well as social media analysts and academic researchers.

It stated that the U.S. military used fake accounts on various social media platforms to spread propaganda that “aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid that was being supplied by China.”

“Through phony internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos, the military’s propaganda efforts morphed into an anti-vax campaign,” the report stated. “Social media posts decried the quality of face masks, test kits and the first vaccine that would become available in the Philippines – China’s Sinovac inoculation.”

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Health Assistant Secretary Albert Domingo said that Reuters’ findings “deserve to be investigated and heard by the appropriate authorities of the involved countries.” He refused to answer follow-up questions, The Inquirer reported.

The campaign allegedly took place at a time when the Philippines was being hit hard by the coronavirus. According to the Our World in Data tracker, 66,864 Filipinos were confirmed to have died of COVID-19 as of June 2, second only to Indonesia. In per capita terms, the country saw the third-highest proportion of COVID-19 deaths in the region, behind Malaysia and Indonesia.

According to the Reuters investigation, the Pentagon using multiple fake Tagalog-language social media accounts on platforms like Twitter (now X), Instagram, and Facebook to spread the message that Chinese vaccines are dangerous and to disparage any aid from China. To take a representative example, one post read: “From China – PPE, Face Mask, Vaccine: FAKE. But the Coronavirus is real.”

The campaign also disparaged vaccines produced by other rivals and eventually expanded beyond Southeast Asia to other parts of the world. In some Muslim countries, the campaign allegedly intended to “amplify the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China’s shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law.”

The influence campaign began in the spring of 2020 and ran until mid-2021, when President Rodrigo Duterte was in power in Manila. U.S.-Philippine relations had soured since Duterte came to office in 2016, as the pugnacious and erratic leader attacked the U.S. and leaned toward China in a bid to gain access to funding for vital infrastructure. According to Reuters, the Pentagon operation was eventually terminated by the Biden administration in mid-2021. To its credit, it then initiated an internal review of the clandestine campaign.

Reuters quoted a Pentagon spokesperson who stated that the U.S. military “uses a variety of platforms, including social media, to counter those malign influence attacks aimed at the U.S., allies, and partners.” She also noted that China had started it, by launching a “disinformation campaign to falsely blame the United States for the spread of COVID-19.”

The investigation adds to the evidence that rather than bringing the world together in the face of a shared threat, the COVID-19 pandemic widened existing geopolitical fault lines. Needless to say, it also reflects poorly on Washington. The Reuters investigation was filled with comments from public health experts, both Filipino and foreign, who decried the effort to stoke fear about Chinese vaccines, warning that it could have contributed to the country’s slow vaccine uptake and high COVID-19 death rate.

According to available data, the country lagged behind many of its Southeast Asian neighbors in rolling out its COVID-19 vaccines. (The Philippine Department of Health claims to have administered 181.6 million doses as of the end of 2023, 48.7 million of which were Sinovac shots.)

While most studies found the Chinese-made vaccines to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines produced by the U.S. firms Pfizer and Moderna, they were still potentially life-saving. As one former Philippine heath secretary put it, “I’m sure that there are lots of people who died from COVID who did not need to die from COVID.”

The revelations have predictably handed the Chinese government a propaganda windfall, seeming to reinforce Beijing’s claim, also heard on sections of the Filipino left, that the U.S. support for the Philippines is motivated overwhelmingly by its desire to maintain its military and strategic primacy and keep China down.

China’s acerbic state-owned tabloid Global Times yesterday published an editorial stating that the Reuters report “fully exposes the U.S.’ positioning toward the Philippines, not only as a ‘pawn’ but also as a ‘consumable.’” It asserted that the country’s increasingly “confrontational” policy toward China, which has increased since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in mid-2022, was the result of U.S. “brainwashing.”

All of this denies the Philippines any agency in its relations with the major powers, and the many reasons why the country is, and will likely remain, one of the most pro-American nations on Earth. But the Philippines has experienced periods of anti-American backlash throughout its post-independence history, of which the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte was just the most recent. Such clandestine operations only offer grist for skeptical Filipinos and grounds to question the friendship of their longstanding security partner.

Defenders of the operation might argue that the U.S. needs to play dirty in order to prevail in its “new Cold War” with China and could point to similar influence operations undertaken by the Chinese government – as well as by the U.S. during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. At the same time, such revelations could well undermine the frequent U.S. claims of moral superiority over its rivals. Looking at how the U.S. and China behaved during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard not to view them, if not as morally equivalent then as parallel “strategic narcissists,” as Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described them this week in a different context, absorbed by their own competition – and indifferent to the needs and views of smaller countries.