US officials: Foreign disinformation is stoking virus fears

Signs in the briefing room of the White House indicate social distancing measures being taken to separate reporters working at the White House, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Signs in the briefing room of the White House indicate social distancing measures being taken to separate reporters working at the White House, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Trump administration is alleging that a foreign disinformation campaign is underway aimed at spreading fear in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, three U.S. officials said Monday.

On Sunday, federal officials began confronting what they said was a deliberate effort by a foreign entity to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the virus outbreak. Agencies took coordinated action Sunday evening to deny that any such plans were put in place, as they tried to calm a nation already on edge by disruptions to daily life caused by the virus.

The three U.S. officials did not name the foreign entity they believe to be responsible. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

It was unclear if the disinformation effort was related to administration officials' complaints in recent days that China was spreading misinformation about the U.S.

Last week, the Pentagon accused the Chinese government of promulgating “false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members.”

At a press briefing Monday, President Donald Trump said it could be that there are some foreign entities “playing games.” But he said it didn't matter because he was not ordering a nationwide lockdown. "At this point, not nationwide," he said. He said there were no domestic travel restrictions, but "we're talking about it every day."

A day earlier, the National Security Council tweeted that "Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” The NSC encouraged Americans to follow official government guidance.

States and municipalities have banned large public gatherings, closed schools, bars and restaurants, and advised people to exercise social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.