Using Moscow’s Playbook, Beijing Sows Doubt into COVID-19 Narrative

When the novel coronavirus first began circulating in Wuhan, Chinese authorities were quick to censor news and to punish doctors and others who shared information about the deadly new virus. The government’s obfuscation and censorship of news about the virus’ risk has been widely blamed for contributing to its later spread throughout China and around the world, where it has now infected close to a million people and killed more than 45,000. Now that COVID-19 cases have slowed in China following stringent containment measures, and cases are currently exploding throughout Europe and the U.S., Chinese officials have launched a disinformation campaign seeding a conspiracy theory that the virus was created and spread by the U.S. military. The Chinese charge was notably levied by Zhao Lijian, deputy director of Foreign Ministry Information Department, on his Twitter account:

Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., later disavowed these claims, but Zhao’s initial statements appear to be part of a broader and often covert campaign being waged from Beijing. Vanessa Molter and Graham Webster track the origins of the Chinese disinformation campaign around COVID-19 for Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center:

Groundless speculation about the origins of the pandemic did not begin with Zhao, but the case of his eye-catching tweets reveals how China’s changing propaganda tactics have interacted with mangled news reporting, social media conspiracy theorizing, and underlying U.S.-China tensions—all resulting in high-profile misinformation about a public health crisis.

An examination of social media posts across Weibo, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit in English, Chinese, and Japanese reveals the context and pathways that brought this particular conspiracy theory to Chinese state media and diplomatic channels. Weeks of speculation and online conspiracy theorizing about military links to the virus’ origins or emergence, combined with a broadening uncertainty about the circumstances of Wuhan’s outbreak and increasingly brittle U.S.-China rhetoric, laid the groundwork for Zhao’s inflammatory tweets and the reaction that followed.

[…] Speculation or conspiracy theory writings about a potential role for the U.S. military in Wuhan’s outbreak circulated weeks before Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, amplified the idea on Twitter. [Source]

While Zhao Lijian’s Twitter campaign was in no way covert or even subtle, the Chinese government’s use of Twitter, which is banned in China, to spread propaganda and disinformation through fake or hacked accounts has gained attention in recent months, especially during Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last year and now again during the coronavirus outbreak. Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li reported on such use of Twitter for ProPublica:

ProPublica’s research tracked how the government-linked influence accounts that had targeted political dissidents and the Hong Kong protests turned their focus to the coronavirus outbreak. During the height of the epidemic in China, many of them became cheerleaders for the government, calling on citizens to unite in support of efforts to fight the epidemic and urging them to “dispel online rumors.”

With the epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government’s image abroad and shore up its support at home. One typical recent tweet in Chinese proclaimed: “We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways.”

[…] We found a pattern of coordinated activity among the fake accounts that appeared to be aimed at building momentum for particular storylines. Central accounts with more legitimate-looking histories such as Keegan’s would make eye-catching posts; for example, a political message accompanied by a bold graphic or a meme, or a provocative video. An army of obvious fake accounts would then engage the posts with likes, reposts and positive comments, presumably to boost their visibility in Twitter’s algorithms.

Posts also used hashtags about trending topics such as the coronavirus outbreak or the Hong Kong protests to gain visibility for an account that had few followers. Other posts would use hashtags unique to the influence network, presumably to try to make them trend on Twitter. Remarkably, some of the fake accounts accumulated hundreds, and, in a few cases, thousands of followers (It’s not clear whether the fakes were being followed by real people or other fake accounts.) [Source]

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed new Chinese government tactics in pushing questionable conspiracy theories abroad along with specific propaganda and disinformation narratives, similar to techniques long used by Russia. Julian E. Barnes, Matthew Rosenberg, and Edward Wong report for The New York Times:

China has a long history of propaganda and efforts to cajole the world into following its own narrative on geopolitical issues like Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong. While it pushes its policies and views, some openly anti-American, it rarely puts enormous resources behind fringe conspiracy theories.

But that has changed during the pandemic, intelligence officials and outside experts said. In a highly coordinated campaign, Chinese officials and institutions have spread talking points centered on two narratives: that the United States is to blame for the origins of the virus and that the Communist Party has successfully contained the virus after a hard-fought campaign, affirming the superiority of its system.

[…] After remaining relatively quiet early in the year, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have in recent weeks amplified conspiratorial stories as the coronavirus outbreak has spread globally while China has claimed to have wrested it under control in the city of Wuhan where it originated.

[…] The tactics are “a significant departure from how the Chinese have operated in the past,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Russia has long spread multiple, seemingly contradictory disinformation narratives and then said, ‘How can we know for sure what happened, how can we know the truth?’” she added. “We have never really seen China do that externally before. But now we see Chinese officials and media trying out those typically Russian tactics.” [Source]

The Alliance for Securing Democracy has added a feature on Chinese government disinformation to its Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard, which “captures content from more than 150 Chinese diplomatic and media accounts on Twitter, five state-sponsored news websites, CGTN America and CCTV+’s channels on YouTube, and official statements made by the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations. […] Collecting data since November 2019, the China section of the dashboard has captured official government messaging on topics like the Hong Kong protests, Xinjiang, the trade war with the United States, the implementation of Huawei technology in Europe, and, most notably, the global outbreak of COVID-19.” Jessica Brandt and Bret Schafer of the ASD wrote up some of their initial findings in “Five Things to Know About China’s Disinformation Campaign”. Like other researchers and reporters, they found that Beijing’s tactics are becoming increasingly similar to Moscow’s, focusing more on pushing forward the government’s own narratives rather than just censoring others that they disagree with:

China’s more confrontational posture on COVID-19 represents a clear departure from its past behavior and signals a move toward a style of information manipulation more like Russia’s.

In the early stages of the outbreak, official Chinese messaging largely focused on human-interest stories and on Beijing’s efforts to respond to the crisis. But as the virus spread rapidly to Europe and the United States over the past month, that approach shifted. From February 27 to March 26, four of the ten most engaged-with articles on Facebook from China’s state media outlets featured content that was critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak. This appears to be one component of Beijing’s broader information strategy, which entails highlighting the chaotic nature of democratic political systems, in contrast to its own.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Chinese diplomatic and embassy accounts promoted conspiracy theories from fringe websites and China’s Embassy in Brazil engaged in a public spat with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over statements he made about China’s role in the pandemic.

Using official channels to amplify conspiracy theories and to sow doubt about established facts in the context of major political events is a tactic often used by Moscow — whether to deflect blame, dent democracy’s appeal, or both. Beijing, which has long tended to be more risk averse in its approach to information manipulation, has tended to focus on censoring criticism — suppressing critical content rather than seeding conspiratorial material that is false, polarizing, or misleading. Beijing’s more confrontational posture surrounding COVID-19 could signal a broader shift in its approach. [Source]

A report from European External Action Service which tracks disinformation aimed at Europe during the COVID-19 outbreak from both China and Russia says that Chinese “state media and government officials promote not proven theories about the origin of COVID-19. Chinese coverage highlights displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid.” Propaganda and disinformation about COVID-19 has also been found in advertisement features from Chinese state media in newspapers including the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph.


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