Sheffield councillors targeted with coronavirus conspiracy theory and false information

Councillors in Sheffield raised the alarm after they were targeted by a Trump-supporting publication spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

Wednesday, 13th May 2020, 11:45 am
Updated Friday, 15th May 2020, 3:46 pm

The Epoch Times is a New York-based newspaper which has reportedly given extensive funding and support to US President Donald Trump and promoted conspiracy theories including Spygate and QAnon.

So it came as a shock to elected members of Sheffield Council when it sent unsolicited emails urging them to watch an hour-long film which puts blame on the Chinese Communist Party for the pandemic and calls it the ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘CCP virus’.

The YouTube video has more than four million views, but was flagged by Facebook for having false information.

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Other emails from someone called Zhengfang Mo were sent around the same time and urge councillors to refer to Covid-19 as the ‘CCP virus’ using Epoch Times articles to support their argument.

They also quote a conspiracy theory from an Epoch Times article which falsely links the CCP with countries that have had more cases of the virus, saying “nations and individuals close to the CCP are the ones suffering the worst effects of the virus, as is seen in the raging infections in the CCP’s close ally Iran and in Italy”.

It goes on to say Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have rejected the CCP, have had relatively few infections.

Scientists have proven the virus does not discriminate and that some countries have more cases because of a range of factors such as population size and testing.

Experts have also warned using any names that link it to a place is dangerous and the World Health Organization advises virus names should not include geographic locations; the names of people, occupations, animals, or food; or ‘terms that incite undue fear’.

Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, leader of the Liberal Democrats and one of the politicians sent the messages, said: “I looked at it and I thought ‘this is absolute nonsense’ so I just dismissed it - I didn’t realise it was doing the rounds everywhere.

“Clearly it’s trying to influence local decision makers, clearly it is anti-Chinese and I’m very minded that we have a significant Chinese community in our city.

“Coronavirus is linked to anybody, it’s a worldwide pandemic and that’s how it should be treated and for people to try to use it to pedal hate against any community is deplorable.

“We are a city of tolerance that welcomes everyone so I don’t think those emails will carry any weight.

“It’s worrying so it’s good we’re highlighting it and saying it’s wrong."

Sheffield Labour and Green Party councillors say they were also hit with the messages as well as local politicians in other parts of the country including West Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, West Sussex and London.

The emails were sent through the newsletter marketing service Mailchimp which uses a link at the bottom of emails to answer the question ‘why did I get this?’.

Politicians were told they opted in via the Epoch Times website – which they refute and some said they had never visited the site before.

Last month, CBC News reported that Canadians were ‘angry’ when the organisation posted unsolicited magazines through their letterboxes, which had the calls to rename coronavirus the ‘CCP virus’ on the front page.

The newspaper is linked to the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement in China.

Practitioners of the religion are reportedly heavily persecuted by the Chinese state.

In response to allegations about the messages sent to Sheffield politicians, Jasper Fakkert, Epoch Times editor in chief, said: “We draw a sharp distinction between the CCP and the Chinese people, who are the ones who have suffered most from the CCP. We love China, and we love the Chinese people and we were founded by Chinese immigrants ourselves.”

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