COVID-19: from the U.K. another information warfare test drive?

A former head of the British MI6 claims to have seen new evidence about the artificial origin of the Coronavirus and China’s responsibility. However, the truth is not what it seems, or is it?
Andrea Monti – Adjunct Professor of Law and Order and Public Security – University of Chieti-Pescara  – originally published in Italian by

The British newspaper The Telegraph publishes an article in which Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6) from 1999 to 2004 says “he believes the coronavirus pandemic “started as an accident” when the virus escaped from a laboratory in China) and wonders whether, should China admit liability, it would also agree to pay damages.”

Truthfulness or not of the asserted theses, this article deserves to be included in an information warfare manual because it contains all the classic elements of a PsyOps, so subtly employed, as well as capable of producing the desired (dis)informative effect.

China’s responsibility for the Coronavirus outbreak is a topic raised since the beginning of the pandemic. Still, so far it has resulted in the obsessive (and so far unsuccessful) search for evidence on the involvement of the People’s Republic of China. Lacking a “smoking gun”, the Western narrative resorted to the use of rhetorical arguments that try to make up for the absence of evidence by creating a widespread perception, in public opinion, that regardless of “quibbles”, things have gone that way.  

Were we facing an information warfare operation, and therefore wanting to “read” the Telegraph article in this context, we could say that the strategy would be composed of three elements: objective, means and goals.

The immediate objective is to re-repeat the narrative – until now unsupported by evidence – about China’s responsibility in the diffusion of the Coronavirus.

The means is the use of a sort of “linking” this narrative to public perception through the use of very high profile figures.

The goals are to exert pressure on China to renounce, at least in a significant part, its overwhelming economic power and the grip it exerts on the big Western powers through the control of their public debt.

The information vector

Let us start with the most straightforward part, the “information vector”. The Telegraph is a conservative area newspaper published since 1865 which has hosted, among its correspondents, the current British Prime Minister (Alexander) Boris (de Pfeffel) Johnson. If it is true that “the medium is the message”, the choice of the political orientation of the newspaper through which to convey the news is hugely indicative, especially considering that information is delivered in the form of an exclusive interview.

The interviewee

Let us come to the interviewee: Sir Richard Dearlove is openly conservative, and a supporter of Hard Brexit. Even if he is “out of the loop”, at least formally, since 2004, it is very likely that he has been in touch with the world he has been part of for decades. The overall effect is, therefore, that of a person who has been part of the highest levels of the internal corporis of power and therefore endowed with intrinsic authority. So, “if he says so” it means that it will be right.

A rhetorician or an expert in word-weaving would immediately recognise the inverse application of the principle of competence, admirably synthesised in the exclamation ne supra crepidam, sutor! and which has characterised Socratic thought: the fact of being competent in one field does not imply being competent in other fields. Intuitively, this is so, but the gimmick works (too much) often and therefore a statement coming from a figure of Sir Dearlove’s level has an intrinsic value that makes it more quickly “absorbed” by readers.

Argumentation structure and keywords

Let us now analyse the message and in particular, the structure of the argument.

The “hook” on which all the other links in the logic chain hung from is the fact that Dearlove claims to have seen an “important” (quotes are in the original text) new scientific study that suggests that the Coronavirus was built by Chinese scientists.

The key words are “seen“, “important“, “new“, “scientific” and “suggests“.

The fact that Dearlove has undoubted intelligence expertise does not make him a geneticist or virologist. Even if nothing excludes that he has developed knowledge in these subjects, his public biography attributes him a degree in history. 

Therefore, the fact that he “saw” a scientific study does not imply that he “understood” its meaning. This means that he must have relied on abstract or conclusions, as anyone who has to deal with highly complex documents from a technical point of view, without being an expert in the field. 

The use of the word “important” is ambiguous because it is not clear what it refers to. Is the study “important” because it shows the approach’s correctness of the authors in the creation of the vaccine by the company they work for? Or because it supports the unverified claim that the Coronavirus has laboratory origins?

Accentuating the fact that the study is “new” implies the perception that the authors would have discovered something that everyone else would not have been able to see, which is not bad in itself since science works precisely that way. Still, is the use use of the word “scientific” that raises perplexity. As The Telegraph pointed out, the first study referred to by Dearlove was rejected by several scientific journals and contained explicit accusations against China which were then eliminated in the final version. Also, it reminded the conclusions of the study were questioned by authoritative research institutions and one of the contributors, a scientific advisor to the Norwegian Army, called himself out of this work.

Finally, the fact that an article is accepted for publication in a scientific journal does not make it automatically correct. Being accepted for the publication, in fact, only means that the article meets minimum standards to be conveyed with the imprimatur of the journal. However, this does not validate the results, since this can only happen after independent verification of the conclusions. The example of these days is the Expression of concerns published by The Lancet on an article on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of Coronavirus infection, the results of which were questioned exactly thanks to the publication of the article in a scientific journal.

Finally, as definitive support of the central thesis (Coronavirus is a laboratory product), the Telegraph cites another study by the same authors which, however, has not yet been accepted for publication by anyone and therefore (but the Telegraph does not say this) has neither been verified for the robustness of the method, nor from that of the reliability of the results.

The first conclusion, therefore, is that the study “seen” by Sir Dearlove is “scientific” in the method, but not necessarily in the results. The difference is not immediate but is of fundamental importance for the persuasive effect of the argument.

If, finally, we place “new” and “scientific” alongside “suggests” then we must conclude that we are facing a conjecture and not a fact.

The reinforcement of the message’s truth value through the authoritativeness of the source and the argumentum ad populum

Although he does not seem to be an expert in genetics and virology, Sir Dearlove is undoubtedly competent in intelligence, but that does not make him an authoritative source. On the contrary, his very role as head of MI6 “suggests” to take cum grano salis his statements which could well be, in turn, part of a PsyOps.

Sir Dearlove’s conviction that the Coronavirus has escaped from a laboratory does not derive, in reality, from new information or direct sources, but from tautological confirmation. The virus is artificial because U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo said so and because the Australians also asked for an investigation on the spread of the Coronavirus. The same Australians to whom “governments concerned about COVID-19 had “passed” a dossier on Chinese responsibilities. Moreover, it will not escape the attentive reader the circumstance that the news in question was spread by the Australian Daily Telegraph which is part of the Telegraph galaxy which shows some “circularity” in the validation of the sources.

A classic example of argumentum ad populum.

Confirmation bias and argument selection

The Telegraph’s article, following the rules of good journalism, also mentions information that contradicts Sir Dearlove’s opinions 

This, however, could be the application of a well-known crisis-management technique, according to which by declaring in advance the weak points of a particular position, the possibility of being accused of partial and incomplete news is avoided, or significantly reduced. Moreover, once again, in the application of a classic technique of indirect persuasion, offering suggestive information to those who are already convinced of a certain “truth” causes the refusal to take into consideration counterfactual arguments even though they are present in the general argument.

The ambiguous overall truth value of the initial statement

This opening sentence of the article “In an interview with The Telegraph, Sir Richard Dearlove said he had seen an “important” new scientific report suggesting the virus did not emerge naturally but was man-made by Chinese scientists” should be reworded in “the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, retired for over fifteen years, believes that the Coronavirus is not of natural origin, having read an article written by researchers who suggest this hypothesis without demonstrating it and because Australians and Americans say the same”.

The message to China

In conclusion, the use of classic rhetorical expedients thanks to which the unproven becomes plausible, the plausible becomes probable, the probable becomes true and certain (the Coronavirus was created in the laboratory by the Chinese) is functional to the next step: asking China to take responsibility for the damage caused by the Coronavirus but, beware, for negligence and not as a result of deliberate action (for “recklessness” and not for “malice” as a criminal lawyer would say).

The passage in the article reads verbatim: “I do think that this started as an accident. It raises the issue, if China ever were to admit responsibility, does it pay reparations? I think it will make every country in the world rethink how it treats its relationship with China and how the international community behaves towards the Chinese leadership.”

The message, in terms of negotiation, is clear: you agree to “pay damages” and in return, we will argue that you have not deliberately caused the pandemic (and therefore we will not start World War III) and we could also reconsider the ostracism towards high-tech companies and products (Huawei, but not only).

Rules for counterinformation

           Look beyond appearance

As said at the beginning, there is no evidence to say that this Telegraph article is part of a PsyOps operation, even if this very lack of feedback could make you think so. This highlights the difficulty of interpreting events and of not being able to distinguish the application of a deliberate strategy from an individual action that is not part of a broader context. This is the constant risk of those involved in the analysis business because, stealing Charles Beaudelaire’s words, la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas.

          Distinguishing understanding from perception

Another interesting aspect from a general point of view highlighted by this article concerns the difference between “perception” and “understanding” of meaning in the construction of communication.

The messages conveyed by the Telegraph “hits” instantly to the reader because their perception is immediate and arational, while the critical analysis of the article is mediated by rational perception, being therefore laborious. In other words, while the PsyOps message is “absorbed” directly that of the analysis, it is “filtered” by logic, with an inevitable loss of effectiveness.

Consequently, a reaction that wanted to “expose” shortcomings, instrumentalisations or falsehoods and that listed them would cause the opposite effect, paradoxically reinforcing the original message (and it is equally interesting to note that, instead, this is the paradigm of ordinary political communication). 

           Using tesserae to build mosaics

It is essential, therefore, to keep the pure analysis phase – which must provide elements as objective as possible and distinct from opinions – separate from its tactical application in the field. This requires the data to be organised according to the objective to be achieved, not necessarily in terms of “truth” or “comprehensibility” but in terms of reinforcement of the strategic goal. In other words, there is no one and only one way to combine information and that there is no one and only one form that the external message or action can take.


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