How China uses western social media platforms to amplify its Xinjiang propaganda in 2020?
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a new study last week, which shows that Beijing has been trying to reshape the online narrative about the persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in 2020. Experts think that democratic countries should learn from Taiwan’s experience in combating propaganda efforts from authoritarian governments.
In a new study published on March 30, the Australian Strategic Institute found that the Chinese government has been trying to use western social media platforms to smear Uyghurs, journalists, academics, and organizations that work on the topic of human rights crises in Xinjiang. Among all the social media platforms, Chinese state media has the best results on Facebook.
In 2020, Chinese state media and diplomats’ Twitter accounts tweeted about Xinjiang nearly 500 times a month, which is a huge increase from 280 times in the previous year. Chinese state media is able to reach more international users on Facebook.
ASPI’s statistics also show that the top six pages posting on Xinjiang in 2020 all belong to Chinese state media, with state broadcaster CGTN being the most popular page with likes on posts related to Xinjiang for three years in a row.
Jacob Wallis, a senior analyst at ASPI and one of the authors of the study, said his team witnessed the uptick of social media accounts that belong to Chinese diplomats and Chinese state media on U.S. based social media platforms since 2018 and they knew there was a broader strategy to amplify the narrative and issues that were of importance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Based on the data collected by his team, Wallis said it proves that posts and messaging from Chinese state media can have significant engagement on western platforms. “There is no doubt that they had significant engagement and gained significant reach from the western social media platforms,” he said.
But as international investigation and research studies related to the persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang began to emerge throughout 2020, his team noticed that the Chinese diplomats and state media accounts began to lose their upper hand in terms of narrative control.
“Other voices were penetrating that discourse, and we saw a switch in tactics away from using official sources to other vehicles into international political discourse,” Wallis explained.
Utilize fringed media content to strengthen their narratives
ASPI found that once Chinese state media can no longer achieve the same level of success on the topic of Xinjiang through their own content, they began to turn to content from fringed media that has a similar perspective and narrative to them. In some cases, senior officials from multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations also played a role in sharing this kind of content.
The Grayzone is an example highlighted in this study. Based on ASPI’s statistics, the Grayzone was cited at least 252 times by Chinese state-run outlets. Among them, People’s Daily cited the Grayzone 61 times.
The Grayzone has published articles criticizing foreign media reports about forced labor in Xinjiang. They also published a piece to discredit the research conducted by German scholar Adrian Zenz. That particular article was retweeted by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying in the following months.
ASPI’s data also shows that before December 2019, Chinese state media didn’t mention the Grayzone in both English and Mandarin. However, since Grayzone’s report began to be widely shared somehow coincides with the beginning of Beijing’s amplification of Grayzone’s content.
Jacob Wallis from ASPI says the CCP realized that it needs to build a more sophisticated media ecosystem that will provide a vehicle into international political discourse and it recognizes that influence assets like fringed and alternative media sites such as the Grayzone are very powerful vehicles through which they could launder the disinformation narrative.
“In part, I would suggest that the CCP has learned from what it saw from Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 US Presidential election,” said Wallis. “The Grayzone has been useful to a range of authoritarian regimes and it has certainly been a feature of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem. The CCP has calculated that assets like the Grayzone can provide them a useful vehicle to seed its disinformation narratives into the western media environment.”
Amplify Xinjiang propaganda videos through inauthentic accounts
The team at ASPI also found a new pro-CCP information campaign on Youtube and Twitter that includes video content about the lives of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, using a positive portrayal of domestic and cultural idylls. However, the suspicious aspect of this campaign is that the videos have been boosted by inauthentic accounts on Twitter and Youtube.
“While attribution of the Twitter accounts is difficult without technical signals, we contend this campaign is very likely linked to the Chinese state,” wrote ASPI. “Some of the accounts involved were previously attributed to the Chinese state by Twitter. The full dataset of those accounts has been analyzed by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC). The second is that the key content creator being amplified in this network is a government-affiliated Xinjiang-based company.”
ASPI found that the Xinjiang Audio-Video Publishing House, which is owned by a regional government bureau and is affiliated with the CCP’s United Front Work Department, funded a marketing firm to create videos depicting Uyghurs as supportive of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. The videos were amplified by a network of inauthentic accounts.
Wallis says the use of disinformation by authoritarian states is a particular challenge for democracies, as the openness of their information environment is often weaponized by authoritarian state actors. He thinks that democracies can learn from states like Taiwan, which has “felt the particular brunt of these disinformation campaigns” and done a lot to strengthen civil society’s resilience to disinformation campaigns.
“That allows democracies to continue to function while having the resilience that they need to defend against manipulation of the information environment,” Wallis said.
And since social media platforms are at the frontline of authoritarian states’ disinformation campaigns, Wallis points out that they often have to detect and enforce against malign information operations.
“[Democracies can] find a way to develop a coherent partnership structure between government, civil society, and industry that can help to build that resilience to disinformation campaign by authoritarian actors,” he said.
The piece is first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.