From Spam-bots to Crowd Shots, Authorities Seek to Distract Amid Anti-Lockdown Protests

As thousands across China erupted into a weekend of nationwide protests following a deadly fire in Urumqi, authorities used various propaganda tactics in traditional and social media to minimize the spread of public discontent and divert attention away from both the protests and other potential fuel for people’s frustrations with pandemic controls. 

State media largely ignored the protests. In Tuesday’s edition of the People’s Daily, there was no mention of the pandemic situation on the front page, but a commentary on the second page called for all local governments to “further unify their thoughts and actions with the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions” regarding pandemic prevention. In his Tracking People’s Daily newsletter, Manoj Kewalramani interpreted the commentary as “demanding flexibility and adaptability from local governments, while calling on them to work as per the prescribed central guidelines. There is clearly a suggestion that local officials should address what might be problems or onerous practices and also control key risks (how should a local official interpret that if there are protests?), but this is not a call for easing the broad policy approach.” 

On Monday, CCTV showcased one commentator’s description of the pandemic situation: “The government and people are as tightly linked and united as one strong rope.” At The Guardian, Jonathan Yerushalmy reported on how other state media outlets covered, or ignored, the protests and their context over the weekend:

Protests flared across Chinese cities over the weekend, with calls for political freedoms and an end to Covid lockdowns.

[…] However, none of that was evident on the front pages of some of the country’s most prominent newspapers, or on broadcast channels on Monday. After a night of unrest, CCTV spent most of the morning covering the announcement of the planned launch of the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft to China’s space station on Tuesday. The English language Global Times’ main headline focused on the weekend’s local elections in Taiwan, while Shanghai media reported on the latest industrial revenue figures.

[…] Most of Hong Kong’s mainstream media, normally fast to respond to news on mainland China, meanwhile delayed the reporting of the ubiquitous protests across China by one day and led the stories from the official angle. Most led with the Covid case numbers, or official insistence of the Covid control and played down on the details and colour of the protests themselves. [Source]

Twitter was another medium where coverage of the protests was distorted. CDT catalogued the ways in which the protests were tracked and analyzed on Twitter by various groups in the face of malicious interference and other obstacles. Researchers and journalists noted that a host of Chinese-language bots muddied the waters. Alex Stamos, former Facebook security chief and now director at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said that this activity appeared to be designed to limit international observation of the protests and constituted a “major failure” by Twitter to limit government interference. Some accounts initially appeared to support protesters but later called on them to stop, prompting suspicions of malicious intent. One of them had amassed over 40 thousand followers after just days of being created. Joseph Menn from The Washington Post first reported on the Chinese Twitter accounts that obscured news of the protests:

Numerous Chinese-language accounts, some dormant for months or years, came to life early Sunday and started spamming the service with links to escort services and other adult offerings alongside city names.

The result: For hours, anyone searching for posts from those cities and using the Chinese names for the locations would see pages and pages of useless tweets instead of information about the daring protests as they escalated to include calls for Communist Party leaders to resign.

[…] Sunday’s campaign was “another exhibit where there are now even larger holes to fill,” the ex-employee said. “All the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned.” [Source]

There were other suspected efforts to flood the zone. Chinese internet celebrity Pangzai posted a tweet on Monday after a long period of absence. He has been lauded by the Global Times as an “image ambassador” and featured among other Chinese vloggers whom state media has praised for advancing China’s soft power abroad. On Friday, news about the rape conviction of Chinese-Canadian rapper Kris Wu held the number one spot on Weibo’s trending topics, despite having less engagement than news of the Urumqi fire. Wu was sentenced on Friday, the day after the Urumqi fire, and some people in WeChat groups reportedly questioned whether his sentencing, after a prosecution “shrouded in secrecy,” was deliberately announced on that date in order to distract the public. 

The activity on Twitter and Weibo fits the pattern of previous Chinese efforts to distort online content related to unpopular pandemic controls. In early September, a leaked local directive described a “campaign of comment flooding” on Weibo to distract from mass online protests against lockdowns in Yili (or Ili), Xinjiang. Days later, two more leaked censorship directives outlined official strategies to “win this smokeless war” over online discourse about the effect of pandemic controls in Xinjiang. Ironically, earlier this month, three men were investigated for “criminal comment flooding” for social media posts trying to bring attention to the suffering of Xinjiang residents under lockdown.

Another government attempt to distract from China’s strict pandemic controls has occurred in official coverage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Several reporters noticed that in contrast to broadcasters in other countries, CCTV has mostly refused to show close-up images of fans—most of whom are cheering without masks and tightly packed next to one another in the stands. Kerry Allen from the BBC reported on reactions by Chinese fans stuck in a very different pandemic reality than those in other countries

An open letter questioning the country’s continued zero-Covid policies and asking if China was “on the same planet” as Qatar quickly spread on mobile messenger WeChat on Tuesday, before being censored.

[…] Some [on Weibo] speak of their perception that it is “weird” to see hundreds of thousands of people gathering, without wearing masks or needing to show evidence of a recent Covid-19 test. “There are no separate seats so people can maintain social distance, and there is nobody dressed in white and blue [medical] garb on the sidelines. This planet has become really divided.”

“On one side of the world, there is the carnival that is the World Cup, on the other are rules not to visit public places for five days,” one says. [Source]

In a twist to the story, FIFA apparently issued a takedown notice against the videos in one viral tweet showing how CCTV’s coverage omits fans, prompting some analysts to speculate whether the Chinese government may have been involved. These suspicions come as FIFA faces sharp criticism over other human rights issues surrounding the tournament. Chun Han Wong at The Wall Street Journal shared other reactions from soccer analysts in China:

“Unreasonable, I’ve no words apart from this is unreasonable,” one soccer-focused blogger wrote on Weibo. “If you’re so scared, why don’t you just not broadcast the World Cup, and instead make up some fake news that the World Cup has been canceled due to excessive Covid-related deaths in the West.”

[…F]or Chinese fans, watching the World Cup is “like peeking behind the curtains,” said [Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based analyst of China’s sports industry]. “People can see that life is different overseas, and not perhaps as they’ve been told.” [Source]

Authorities are also incentivizing students not to gather for protests. Over the weekend, some universities announced that they are moving classes online and offering to send students back to their hometowns. Protests this weekend have reportedly taken place at least 79 universities across the country, and given the critical role of students in many of China’s most prominent uprisings, authorities may seek to prevent them from organizing further. Joe McDonald, Dake Kang, and Huizhong Wu at the Associated Press reported on these university efforts to send students home:

Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students rallied over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home. The schools said they were being protected from COVID-19, but dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.

On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told they could go home early for the semester. The school, which is Xi’s alma mater, arranged buses to take them to the train station or airport.

[…] Universities said classes and final exams would be conducted online.

Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by clearing out campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. [Source]

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