When the coronavirus virus was first discovered in Wuhan in December, Chinese authorities immediately acted to censor independent news and information about the virus and its potential threat. In subsequent months, as the virus turned into a global pandemic, the government reached overseas with disinformation and propaganda in an effort to rewrite the history of the virus and their role in its spread. The European Commission recently named China for the first time as a source of disinformation, saying that the government, along with Russia’s, “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally.” Jennifer Rankin at The Guardian reports on the statement issued by the Commission:
French politicians were furious when a Chinese embassy website claimed in mid-April, at the height of Europe’s pandemic, that care workers had abandoned their jobs leaving residents to die. The unnamed Chinese diplomat also claimed falsely that 80 French lawmakers had used a racist slur against the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“I believe if we have evidence we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” Vĕra Jourová, a European commission vice-president, told reporters. “What we also witnessed is a surge in narratives undermining our democracies and in effect our response to the crisis, for example the claim there are secret US biological laboratories on former Soviet republics has been spread by both pro-Kremlin outlets, as well as Chinese officials and state media.”
“I strongly believe that a geopolitically strong EU can only materialise if we are assertive,” Jourová said, alluding to the aim of the European commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, for the body to have more clout on the world stage. [Source]
Even before the COVID outbreak, the E.U. had struggled to define its relationship with China, after labeling the country a “systemic rival” amid disagreements over trade, investment, and human rights issues in April. Last month, the E.U. faced criticism after it was revealed that a report on disinformation during COVID-19 had apparently been watered down to soften criticism of China. Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post reports further on the recent statement in the broader context of E.U.-China ties:
It was the European Union’s highest-level and most forceful criticism yet of the way Beijing has handled its messaging about the pandemic. The bloc, along with individual European capitals, has been struggling to strike a balance between the United States and China, two rivals that are increasingly at odds on a range of security and diplomatic issues, including the pandemic response.
“The pandemic showed that disinformation does not only harm the health of our citizens, but also the health of our democracies,” Vera Jourova, the senior E.U. official charged with rule-of-law issues, told reporters, unveiling a list of recommendations for the 27 E.U. member states to help promote facts and combat misinformation.
[…] It also called on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to strengthen its fact-checking operation and to label and combat inaccurate information on their sites. Several companies are already taking part in a voluntary E.U. transparency initiative that attempts to make the sources and narratives of disinformation more transparent. But officials on Wednesday asked for monthly reports, instead of the current intermittent schedule, and for more robust efforts overall.
[…] The E.U. has been walking a fine line with China, wary of jeopardizing Chinese investments in European economies at a time when the pandemic has inflicted grievous harm. European leaders have also been seeking Chinese cooperation on the scientific effort to combat the coronavirus. E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke Tuesday to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to set up a virtual summit between top E.U. and Chinese leaders, which they hope can take place later this month. [Source]
As the E.U. statement came out, the Chinese government was launching its own message about disinformation during the COVID crisis:
Quite the pairing of headlines. Of course, it's no coincidence that Chinese state media is stepping up its messaging on disinformation as the EU addresses China's "disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighborhood, & globally":https://t.co/LBmU3zPLRE pic.twitter.com/4TqBLtV2O0
— Julian Gewirtz (@JulianGewirtz) June 10, 2020
Twitter and other social media platforms have been a primary front in the disinformation and propaganda war waged by Chinese officials, notably by several high-profile diplomats who post aggressive and combative messages from their personal accounts. A recent investigation by The New York Times looks into the use of Twitter by thousands of accounts who appear to exist solely to amplify Chinese government messages:
Behind China’s combative new messengers, a murky hallelujah chorus of sympathetic accounts has emerged to repost them and cheer them on. Many are new to the platform. Some do little else but amplify the Beijing line.
[…] Of the roughly 4,600 accounts that reposted China’s leading envoys and state-run news outlets during a recent week, many acted suspiciously, The Times found. One in six tweeted with extremely high frequency despite having few followers, as if they were being used as loudspeakers, not as sharing platforms.
Nearly one in seven tweeted almost nothing of their own, instead filling their feeds with reposts of the official Chinese accounts and others.
In all, one third of the accounts had been created in the last three months, as the war of words with the Trump administration heated up. One in seven had zero followers. [Source]