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Foreign disinformation doesn’t matter, Trump says, he’s not ordering nationwide lockdown

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence whisper to U.S. President Donald Trump as he speaks about the coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House on March 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. The United States has surpassed 3,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19, and the death toll climbed to at least 61, with 25 of the deaths associated with the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued guidance
recommending against indoor gatherings larger than 50 people for the
next eight weeks.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr.
Anthony Fauci, said Sunday that Americans should aim to severely curtail
leaving their homes, but he did not indicate the government would order
such a move. He was specifically questioned on whether he’d like to see
a “national lockdown.”

“I think Americans should be prepared
that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as
a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task
force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes
of Health.

Also on Monday, national security officials said there
had been a “cyber incident” involving the computer networks of the
Department of Health and Human Services, but the networks were operating
normally. They didn’t detail the scope of the incident, but Secretary
Alex Azar later said that the networks were not penetrated and that the
department has taken strong defensive action.

“The source of this enhanced activity remains under investigation, but there was no data breach,” he said.

the officials did not name a specific entity responsible for the
disinformation campaign, U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly
cautioned that Russia, China, Iran and other countries are engaged in
ongoing efforts to influence U.S. policy and voters in elections.

officials have warned for years that Russia has been engaging in covert
social media campaigns using fictional persona, bots, social media
postings and disinformation aimed at dividing American public opinion
and sowing discord in the electorate.

The Justice Department said
the Russian social media effort during the 2016 presidential election
and the 2018 midterms included spreading distrust for political
candidates and causing divisions on social issues, including immigration
and gun control.

Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials privately briefed lawmakers on Russian efforts to stir chaos in American politics and undermine public confidence in this year’s election. The briefing detailed Russian efforts to boost the White House bids of both Trump from the GOP and Democrat Bernie Sanders.

about the government’s response to the spreading virus have circulated
online for weeks, prompting authorities in several states to urge
residents to seek out trusted sources in government and news.

General William Barr sent a memo to U.S. attorneys across the country
on Monday warning that the Justice Department has seen reports of people
selling fake cures for the coronavirus, phishing emails posing as
official notices from the CDC and the World Health Organization and
malware inserted in apps designed to track the spread of the virus.

Barr directed every U.S. attorney to prioritize prosecuting all “criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.”

Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he’s been asked about the
rumors by “senior leaders in business, health care, politics.”

had community leaders and elected officials all text me or call me and
say ‘I understand on Monday you’re basically going to order everybody to
shelter in place for two weeks. The message has been exactly the same,”
the Republican governor said.

“We have no plans to do that.”

said it shows the need for residents to find trusted sources of news
and information, such as legitimate news organizations or public health

“There’s so much information out there,” Baker said. “Some of which is legit, but a lot of it is wild speculation.”

and posts suggesting Texas, Washington and New York states would be
shutting down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus escalated with
screenshots of text messages circulating online that claimed that within
48 to 72 hours Trump would place the U.S. under a two-week quarantine.

York City officials last week debunked a claim passed around in text
messages that the city’s Metro-North trains, connecting commuters from
the suburbs to the city, would be shut down and that other train service
would be limited. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also said
claims that the state would soon be under quarantine were untrue.

Carvin, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, a Washington based
think tank, said the rumors circulating via text are the toughest to
trace because they often percolate from private messaging platforms and
texts, then are copy-and-pasted into public social media posts.

no way to know if these are organic or intentional, unfortunately,
because the sentiment contained in them is so plausible that they could
very easily be born out of home-grown rumors,” he said.

For most
people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such
as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with
existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including
pneumonia. The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 180,000 people
and left more than 7,000 people dead. In the United States, there have
been more than 4,000 confirmed cases and scores of deaths.

Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, David Klepper in Providence, R.I., and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report. The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.