It may seem like an updated version of the 1966 comedy “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” but there is nothing funny about conspiratorial ravings from the Twitterverse that Chinese troops massed along the border with Maine were schwacked in an airstrike.
Recent posts from a QAnon-backing Twitter handle with nearly 50,000 followers claimed that tens of thousands of Chinese troops had amassed along Maine’s border with Canada and that an F-16 fighter that crashed last week in Michigan was actually shot down — presumably by the Chinese.
(QAnon has, in recent years, become an increasingly dangerous conspiracy theory claiming, among other outlandish things, that President Donald Trump is fighting a horde of deep state pedophiles.)
While chatter about Chinese troops in Canada is steeped in fantasy, it is this kind of disinformation that presents a real threat, say a couple of experts in the information battlespace.
“This is in a sense information warfare,” Dave Lapan — a retired Marine colonel who served in several public affairs roles, including at the departments of defense and homeland security — told Military Times. “This is something we usually deal with from adversaries. And who knows? Some of this may be generated by our adversaries.”
If this information is not generated by them, it is at least amplified, said Lapan, adding that nations like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran “use social media to generate unrest” in the U.S.
“The gallery of adversaries are all involved in information warfare against us,” said Lapan, now vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
On Monday, the Twitter handle @stormis_us posted that “The F-16 in Michigan was shot down and I now believe that 50,000 Chinese troops were in fact bombed and killed by anti-personnel bombs. At the Maine/Canadian border.”
The information seems farcical on its face, but the handle, which states “THE TRUTH and FACTS. A Warrior for GOD and Christ, #VETERAN, #WWG1WGAWORLDWIDE, #MAGA, #TRUMP2020, #Conservative” has nearly 50,000 followers, with more than a mere few believing this post.
And yet, not only are there no formations of Chinese troops in Canada, but the F-16, which belonged to the Wisconsin Air National Guard, crashed on a routine training mission Dec. 8, killing the pilot, Capt. Durwood “Hawk” Jones.
Other accounts used pictures of howitzers on a train in Maine, which first surfaced in October, as “proof” that the U.S. military was responding to a Chinese incursion into Canada — RUMINT that bubbled up via some delusional trainspotter that was then knocked down by the local CBS affiliate.
Still, some on Twitter suggested Monday reaching out to people in Jackman, Maine, a town about 16 miles from the Canadian border, to see what they know.
The answer, of course, is nothing.
“There have been no military conflicts in or around Jackman in the recent past,” Town Manager Victoria D. Forkus said in an email to Military Times.
The Maine National Guard also dispelled the conspiracy.
“The Maine National Guard has no knowledge of any such troop movement,” Army Maj. Carl Lamb, a spokesman for the Maine National Guard, told Military Times in response to questions about whether there were any Chinese troops stationed across the border.
As for the howitzers, the real story is hardly as compelling as armor being rushed to the border to stave off the ChiComs.
The Maine Military Authority, said Lamb, had been refurbishing the howitzers, but those operations ended two years ago.
“Recently, the federal government decided to move the howitzers out of Maine,” said Lamb. “MMA was contracted to deliver the equipment to Presque Isle for transport by rail to their final destination. MMA’s contractual storage obligations ended once the howitzers were delivered to Presque Isle for follow on transport.”
WHY THIS IS BAD
Officials from Capt. Jones’ unit, the 115th Fighter Wing, declined to talk about the effects of these conspiracy theories on his grieving family.
“Right now, we are focusing on supporting Capt. Jones’ family and our Wing as we lost a hero and a true patriot,” said Capt. Leslie Westmont, a wing public affairs officer. “Additionally, we are doing everything possible to assist and support the ongoing investigation.”
But beyond dragging a decorated combat veteran pilot into this mess, the danger in these kinds of conspiracy theories lies in the mistrust these posts sow, Lapan said.
He likened it to rumors about Jade Helm 15, a special operations training exercise five years ago. Conspiracy purveyor Alex Jones so twisted the info that folks in Texas were seriously worried about commandos gearing up to take over the country.
A more recent example, Lapan said, is how retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney spouted off about how U.S. spec ops troops were killed in a gun battle with the CIA in Germany over computer equipment associated with election fraud.
“In this current environment, you have a lack of credibility and mistrust,” said Lapan, adding that domestic public affairs personnel are now having to deal with the kinds of issues faced by their colleagues downrange.
This mistrust has been compounded, he said, by “so-called militias” and law enforcement dressed up like troops during recent public unrest across the nation.
“People in the public have the perception that the military is doing things that it is not actually doing.”
Victor Garcia, a retired Army colonel who most recently served as chief of information operations for U.S. Special Operations Command until winding down his career in June, agreed.
“The danger to this is that it actually causes people to doubt what the truth is,” said Garcia, who now does business development work for Northrup Grumman. “The ability to discern what is real and what is not is becoming increasingly more difficult.”
“I think there is an even bigger issue than discord and discontent,” said Garcia. “This causes paralysis in policy making, because when you have policy makers, ostensibly of the same nation — and I am not just speaking of the U.S. here — when you have this level of disagreement as to what are truly the facts, it paralyzes consensus building that leads to policy implementation.”
Garcia pointed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 as a real-world example of the effects of disinformation.
“I would offer that when you look at the response by some of our European partners to the Russian incursion into Ukraine, that is a perfect example of what I am talking about with policy paralysis,” he said. “Are they Russians? Ukrainian dissidents? Who do they belong to? How do we take action against Russia and what if we are wrong? They couldn’t form a consensus of what the facts were.”
Perhaps the best portrayal of the potential end result of all this is the March 4, 1960, “Twilight Zone” episode titled “The Monsters are due on Maple Street.”
Lapan agreed that the 60-year-old teleplay aptly captures the dangers of today’s information warfare battlespace.
“Even if our adversaries didn’t start these rumors, I am sure they are joyfully watching things like that spread to create division and conflict.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.