The push by Russian propagandists last week to distort information on the atrocities in Bucha marked the Kremlin’s most aggressive disinformation campaign of the war. Russian diplomats and state media tweeted the term “Bucha” more than 1,000 times last week, nearly twice the number of tweets that used the term “biological” across the seven days that the bioweapons conspiracy peaked. Kremlin-linked accounts claimed that the Bucha massacre was a “fake attack” staged by actors. Diplomats suggested that the United States and NATO “ordered” the false flag operation to sabotage peace talks and to justify additional sanctions against Russia. Russia’s foreign intelligence service said the head of the U.K.’s MI6 spy agency, Richard Moore, might have planned the Bucha incident. Moscow-affiliated accounts also insisted that the Western media was an “accomplice” to the fake attack. At the same time, Russian propagandists claimed that the dead bodies were real but that the people had been killed by Ukrainian forces for supporting Russia. One diplomatic account put out a 16-tweet-long thread, which asserted that the chronology of events proved Russia’s innocence and that a Ukrainian neo-Nazi had ordered the killings in Bucha. Officials and state-backed outlets predicted that “Ukraine and its Western propaganda-tutors” were planning to stage another attack to blame Russia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted that such an incident would happen around Irpen, while RT’s editor-in-chief suggested it would center around Kharkiv.
Kremlin-linked accounts also made a barrage of denials and counter-accusations after Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had killed dozens of civilians with a missile that targeted a train station in Kramatorsk. Diplomatic accounts claimed a Tochka-U missile was used in the attack and that only Ukrainian forces use that type of weapon. They argued that “any [social media] user with a basic understanding of physics” could see that the missile came from Ukrainian territory, and they asserted that the serial number on the missile proved it belonged to the Ukrainian army. The Russian Embassy in Canada said the “Kiev junta” had ordered “neo-Nazis” to carry out the “heinous crime.” That same post argued that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “controlled by the Western intelligence services to destroy the people of Ukraine.” Other diplomatic accounts argued that Ukraine wanted to “maximize the number of civilian victims” to prevent and deter people from fleeing the country because Ukrainian forces intend to use civilians as “human shields.”
Russian-affiliated accounts last week issued threats before and criticism after the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Ahead of the vote, Kremlin-backed accounts noted that suspending Russia from the council was “theoretically possible” but “unimaginable.” They warned that the move would “undermine the council’s universal nature,” give the West a chance to more aggressively push its failed human rights agenda, and amount to a “declaration of war.” After the resolution was adopted, Russia claimed to have already decided to remove itself from the council. Diplomatic accounts also accused the West of exploiting the council and engaging in “gross and mass violations of human rights.” Sputnik asked why the council had been politicized.
Kremlin-linked accounts also continued to push familiar narratives around the war. State media picked up claims that sanctions against Russia would damage the global economy and international institutions, raise prices for Western consumers, and forge stronger ties between Russia and its partners. State outlets and diplomats likewise claimed that NATO dominated the EU, disrupted the Middle East, and trained Ukrainian Nazis. Russian propagandists also accused Ukraine of walking back commitments made during peace talks and threatened to end discussions altogether.
Finally, Russian government-associated Twitter accounts paid limited attention to the first round of the French presidential election. France was the sixth most mentioned country last week by Russian diplomats and state media. There were only 181 post mentioning President Emmanuel Macron or his principal challenger Marine Le Pen, and election coverage was largely neutral, though outlets like RedFish and RT showcased protests ahead of the vote.
Chinese diplomats and state media provided more limited and sanitized coverage of the massacre in Bucha than their global counterparts last week. The term “Bucha” was not among the most mentioned key phrases by monitored Chinese Twitter accounts last week, and the most used term associated with Bucha was “incident” rather than “massacre” or “atrocity.” When the term massacre was used in the context of Bucha, it was presented in quotes as a disputed claim made by Ukrainian authorities, or more conspiratorially, as a “so-called massacre” potentially staged by Ukrainians and/or the West. Due to a Chinese holiday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) did not give its usual daily press conferences until Wednesday last week. At the Wednesday press conference, spokesperson Zhao Lijian deplored the killings without designating a culprit and called instead for caution. This official Chinese line was confirmed by Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying who called for an independent investigation. These calls for caution and for independent verification of the war crimes were echoed by many Chinese diplomats, including in the Philippines, Australia, and Turkey. Diplomats in Pakistan and South Africa, among others, relayed Russian denials about the killings. Chinese embassies in France and Japan were even more provocative, as they retweeted video content from their Russian counterparts accusing MI6 of organizing the Bucha killings and showing purported Ukrainian atrocities in Ukraine. Similarly, the MFA and Chinese diplomats in Ireland, Tanzania, and at ASEAN all protested the UN General Assembly’s vote to suspend Russian from the UN Human Rights Council.
The three most used key phrases and the two most used hashtags in Chinese diplomatic and state media tweets last week were related to the covid-19 outbreak in China, especially in Shanghai. Monitored accounts’ tweets related to covid-19 in Shanghai were upbeat and highlighted the competence of the authorities. For instance, top stories from Xinhua applauded the millions of residents who had been tested, highlighted foreign companies’ sustained trust in the authorities, and praised the thousands of doctors helping the city. This is in stark contrast to the stories appearing in foreign media and on Chinese social media that describe a city on the verge of famine. Negative stories—particularly from U.S. sources—about the government’s handling of the situation were met with fierce pushback from China’s propagandists. The Global Times’ former editor in chief, for example, accused the United States of making a “rude accusation of China’s epidemic control measure.” The Chinese Consul in Beirut compared China’s covid death rate to the United States’, while Zhao Lijian and the MFA went after the United States’ supposedly racist handling of the pandemic. While Zhao was laconic when quizzed about China ordering foreign vaccines to halt the spread of covid-19 on Thursday, he was much more verbose on Friday when asked about traditional Chinese medicine, which he described as “a jewel of the Chinese nation and treasure for people around the world.”
With its domestic audience upset at covid-19 mismanagement and the global public relatively shocked by the images out of Bucha, Chinese propaganda defaulted to its usual programming: denigrating the West, especially the United States. Seven of last week’s top ten most retweeted tweets from Chinese accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 accused Western democracies of having biased media, bullying, having double standards, and inciting “color revolutions.” The specific narratives promoted by Chinese diplomats and state media last week had an air of deja-vu, with the promotion of suspicion about U.S. biolabs, opposition to sanctions, anger at the 1999 embassy bombing in Serbia, and praise of “Chinese-style democracy” making the rounds yet again.
Chinese diplomats also gloated about “Death to America” chants after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan dodged a vote of no confidence early last week. The next day, the Global Times warned of U.S. “color revolution” attempts. When Khan was eventually voted out by parliament in the latter part of the week, CGTN shared his accusations of “foreign conspiracy of regime change.” As late as Sunday, CGTN-affiliate T-House continued to relay Khan’s version of events about unprecedented crowds flocking to support him.
Finally, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) planned visit to Taiwan prompted a flurry of angry reactions from Chinese diplomats in Russia, Venezuela, and the United States. In a bizarre global tantrum, the Chinese Consul in Auckland tweeted about Wang Yi warning French diplomats about the Pelosi trip. Pelosi’s positive covid-19 diagnosis postponed the trip, but it didn’t fully quell the uproar.
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