The coronavirus outbreak has opened up a new chapter in the global information contest between autocrats and democrats. In recent weeks, China has employed increasingly assertive tactics in its efforts to shape perceptions of the crisis. Data collected by the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard illustrate, in near-real time, the myriad ways Beijing-backed media and government officials attempt to influence global public opinion — including by adopting some elements of Russia’s playbook. Here are five such tactics of note.
Chinese officials are dramatically increasing their presence on Western social media platforms.
China’s diplomatic corps is increasingly leveraging Twitter — which is blocked in China — as a platform to influence global public opinion. Since the first anti-government protest erupted on the streets of Hong Kong at the end of March 2019, Twitter accounts connected to Chinese embassies, consulates, and ambassadors have increased by more than 250 percent. From September to December of last year alone, a period in which the turmoil in Hong Kong intensified, China’s diplomatic corps created more than 40 new accounts on Twitter — roughly the same number of accounts it had in total prior to April 2019.
It was only a month before that surge began that, for the first time, Google, Twitter and Facebook each deactivated networks of accounts found to be waging Beijing-backed global influence campaigns designed to reach the west. Taken together, these developments suggest that Beijing is increasingly seeking to shape the global information environment beyond its borders.
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.
Official Chinese messengers piggyback off of Iranian and Russian propaganda networks.
Since November 2019, three of the top five most retweeted news outlets (not including China’s state-backed media), were funded by the Iranian or Russian governments. PressTV, RT, and SputnikNews were the third, fourth, and fifth most retweeted outlets, respectively. In addition, several individuals associated with Russian government-funded outlets or pro-Kremlin websites were among the 100 most retweeted accounts by those monitored on the dashboard.
One example offers a case in point. On the day after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic, senior Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted an article from known pro-Kremlin outfit Global Research Canada promoting the false theory that the virus originated in the United States. The tweet, which received significant attention (over 10 thousand retweets and 20 thousand likes to date), was retweeted by at least a dozen diplomatic accounts. Meanwhile, China’s state-backed media outlets ran multiple articles amplifying the false theory.
The episode illustrates the extent to which state-backed propaganda and fringe website ecosystems are interconnected. Amplification between and among overt Chinese, Iranian, and Russian propaganda sites that push anti-U.S., anti-Western content appears to be circular.
Chinese officials’ and state-backed media’s messaging patterns on the Uighurs in Xinjiang reflect many classic elements of Russian disinformation with a uniquely Chinese twist.
Chinese media outlets, including CGTN and CCTV’s YouTube channels, have provided a steady dose of cultural and human-interest stories set in Xinjiang, both directly and indirectly advancing the narrative that Uighurs are happy and benefiting from “reeducation camps.” Promoting positive image of China has long been part of Beijing’s information approach.
These stories are intermixed with claims that the negative coverage of Xinjiang is a product of western media propaganda, a line also echoed by Beijing’s. diplomats at the United Nations, who lambasted the United States and other countries for “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” Discrediting western media is typical of Russia’s information approach.
Finally, there have been consistent efforts by Chinese government and government-funded media to justify the camps by connecting conversations around Xinjiang to terrorism. CGTN ran a four-part series entitled “Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang,” and the most-used hashtag by monitored accounts in tweets featuring the word “terrorism” has been #Xinjiang — including in breaking news posts featuring terrorist incidents unrelated to China or the province. Raising the specter of terrorism to justify controversial behavior is a typically Russian tactic.
China is more confident in its brand than Russia.
Whereas Russia’s information strategy is to repel audiences from the West rather than attract them to Russia, China’s government tends to promote a positive image of the country and its governance model. This is borne out most clearly in a comparative analysis of the data captured on Hamilton 2.0 from Russian and Chinese state-backed television outlets on YouTube. To date, just over 50 percent of CGTN and CCTV video content has focused on China. By comparison, only four percent of RT America and RT UK’s video content has focused on Russia, with little to no coverage of Russian domestic issues, culture, or politics.
This reflects China and Russia’s distinct capabilities and perceptions of the international system. Russia, a declining power by many measures, seeks to compensate for its relative weaknesses compared to the West by discrediting and destabilizing it. Moscow’s broad goal is to soften the appeal of democracies to would-be activists at home and to actually weaken them by making them harder to govern. To do so, it seeks to foment disorder.
China, a rising power, aims instead to reshape the international order in ways that are conducive to its interests. It too seeks to lessen the appeal of democratic systems as an attractive alternative to authoritarian rule and to slow or obstruct the West’s ability to support democratic progress. However, it does so by highlighting the strengths of its own governance model. That has been the case since long before the COVID-19 crisis came into view. In that sense, the crisis has simply provided new fodder for Beijing’s longstanding approach.
Data on China’s state media and diplomatic accounts surfaced by the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard offer a unique opportunity to observe how Beijing’s strategic communications are shifting in tone and substance — and to do so nearly in real time. These communications address a broad range of subjects, including the Hong Kong protests, Xinjiang, the trade war with the United States, the implementation of Huawei technology in Europe, and, most recently, the global outbreak of COVID-19.
The data suggest that Beijing is increasing its presence on western social media platforms and taking a more confrontational approach to information manipulation that draws on Russia’s tactics. Those tactics include amplifying messaging from Russian and Iranian propaganda ecosystems and questioning the legitimacy of western media outlets. It does all this with confidence in its brand. Mounting a successful democratic response will depend, at least in part, on integrating these insights into Beijing’s shifting information strategy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.