Foreign Ministry Spokespeople Atwitter Over American Social Media Bans

A new investigation by China Media Project revealed how Twitter’s decision to label certain Chinese accounts as “state-affiliated” throttled their reach, curbing China’s “borrowed boat” propaganda strategy yet also impacting independent Chinese media outlets. In August of 2020, Twitter attached labels to accounts connected to the Chinese, French, Russian, U.K., or U.S. governments and stopped boosting the reach of their posts by removing them from search bar recommendations. Chinese state-backed accounts had taken to Twitter to spread messages both benign, such as images of pandas, and pernicious, including denialism about the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. At China Media Project, Kevin Schoenmakers and Claire Liu investigated the impact of Twitter’s new policy and its unintended consequences:

The three accounts with the most followers, belonging to state broadcaster CGTN, state news agency Xinhua, and the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, all saw drops of over 20 percent per tweet. The numbers for China Daily and the Global Times, English-language newspapers published by the Information Office of the State Council and the People’s Daily respectively, also shrank by double digits. Tweets by the latter, a national tabloid long known for its often provocative comments on world affairs, received 31 percent fewer likes after the labeling.

[…] For many businesses, advertising services on Twitter, through tools like “Quick Promote,” are an important way to boost engagement, increasing followers and website traffic. But Chinese state media and diplomats have also seen platforms like Twitter and Facebook as essential channels in getting global audiences to hear official state narratives, and redress what China’s propaganda officials regard as a serious deficit in what they call “international discourse power” (国际话语权), and what they regard as a key aspect of China’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力).

[…] But despite China’s massive external media investments, reaching foreign audiences has been difficult, and so these same outlets rely on Western social media to share China’s viewpoints. They have been aggressive in making sure they have a big audiences – or at least appear to have them – on major platforms like Twitter. Some Chinese state media have spent millions of yuan to expand their base of followers on both Twitter as well as Facebook, as tender documents show. A government notice published in August 2019 showed that China’s top internet control body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), had a one-year agreement with the People’s Daily for the latter to promote information about China on Facebook for 5.8 million yuan, or just over 800,000 US dollars. State media have also been suspected of buying followers on social media networks. [Source]

They also found that independent outlets like Caixin, a pathbreaking investigative outlet founded by famous journalist Hu Shuli, was rather misleadingly labeled a “state-affiliated” account:

It is important to recognize that media like Caixin, while also state-affiliated, can have room for critical and investigative journalism, [Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong] says. He suggests Twitter could refer users to a third-party website with detailed information. It might be possible, he says, for social media companies to commission such a site. At present, there are no reliable expert sources for a more detailed understanding of how various media operate. YouTube, which began labeling “news broadcasters that receive some level of government or public funding” in 2018, links users to Wikipedia. [Source]

The Economist reported on the Twitter rule’s effect on China’s “Wolf Warriors,” the new style of bombastic government spokespeople and diplomats, who have spread vaccine disinformation on the platform:

The findings raise questions about the role Twitter and other Western social-media platforms play in helping China’s propagandists fulfil Mr Xi’s wishes. In March 2020 Zhao Lijian, a foreign-ministry spokesman, prompted a furore (including in the White House) with a viral tweet suggesting that American military visitors may have seeded covid-19 in China. Mr Zhao is often called a “wolf warrior” because of his pugnacious style on Twitter (the nickname refers to the titles of popular Chinese films featuring a Rambo-like character). On January 17th he was prowling again, retweeting two posts by Liu Xin, a cgtn presenter, that called on Western media to focus on deaths in Germany and Norway of old people who had taken the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for covid-19.

Such posts, along with others promoting the adoption of China’s own vaccines abroad, suggest an attempt by China’s propagandists to sap faith in non-Chinese vaccines. That is reckless at a time when public acceptance of well-tested ones is so vital to ending the pandemic. (Twitter said Ms Liu’s tweets did not violate its rules.)

[…] Mr Zhao and Ms Liu have a total of more than 1m followers, but the diplomat’s recent retweets of Ms Liu’s concerns about vaccine deaths have not been shared nearly as widely as his troublemaking tweets of last March. The wolf warriors are still online, but their snarls are less audible. [Source]

Twitter locked the account of the Chinese Embassy in the United States after an inflammatory January 7 tweet called Uyghur women “baby-making machines” who were liberated by “eradicating extremism.” The United States’ State Department has designated the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang both genocide and a crime against humanity, in part because of new reports detailing forced sterilizations of Uyghur women. A Twitter spokesperson said that the account was suspended “for violating our policy against dehumanization,” but Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that, in fact, China was a “major victim” of the ban. At Bloomberg, Kurt Wagner and Peter Martin reported on the Chinese government’s reaction to the Twitter ban:

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday said authorities were “puzzled” about why Twitter restricted the account, calling it the embassy’s responsibility to correct “fake reports and information related to Xinjiang.”

“We hope Twitter can adhere to objective and fair principles and not display double standards on this issue,” she said at a briefing in Beijing.

[…] China’s embassy in Washington joined Twitter in 2019 in the midst of heated trade talks between the countries, as more Chinese officials started using the platform to aggressively defend Beijing across the world in what has become known as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Chinese officials and state-run media have used Twitter to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy, particularly after a deadly riot at the Capitol earlier this month.

After the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka’s account was suspended last year, it argued its “freedom of speech” must be honored, even though Twitter posts are blocked in the mainland. [Source]


Although China has banned most major American media and tech companies from operating within its borders, officials often complain about restrictions imposed by the United States. When the Trump Administration moved to ban TikTok and WeChat in 2020, China complained that such a ban would violate World Trade Organization rules.

In a recent peculiar twist, Chinese state media cited Twitter’s suspension of former President Donald Trump’s account as the end of America as a “beacon of democracy.” Some voices pushed back. CDT translated Peking University law professor He Weifang’s article “On the U.S. President’s Twitter Freedom,” which argued that the ban was both constitutional and necessary. His article was quickly scrubbed from the internet by Chinese censors.

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