China Manipulates Global Media
Frank V. Vernuccio, Jr., J.D.
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ruling Chinese Communist Party, which operates concentration camps on a scale not seen since the Nazi regime, is seeking to manipulate international media to hide its crimes against humanity.
The victims are predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Recently, those protesting against COVID lockdowns have become a factor, as well.
The news should not be startling. For some time, China has sought to influence what people around the world see, read and hear about the totalitarian tactics of its rulers. In addition to the methods outlined in a recent American government report, it has sought to use its financial muscle to portray a false image of itself. A Heritage report quotes Mike Gonzalez’s warning that “American audiences are being submitted to censorship, not our own censorship, but a foreign power’s censorship, and a Communist Party censorship. But, we get shown a very benign view of China, in which China is a normal country, no different from Paris, or Britain, or Germany. That is not the case obviously. If you speak against the government in Germany, nothing happens to you. If you speak against the government in China, they’ll throw you in jail.”
According to the newly released U.S. State Department study, PRC-directed and -affiliated actors lead a coordinated effort to amplify Beijing’s preferred narratives on Xinjiang, to drown out and marginalize narratives that are critical of the People’s Republic of China PRC’s repression of Uyghurs, and to harass those critical of the PRC.
In addition to spreading false information, the tactics include flooding the international information environment to limit access to content that contradicts Beijing’s official line, and by creating an artificial appearance of support for PRC policies. Messengers use sophisticated A.I. -generated images to create the appearance of authenticity of fake user profiles. The PRC works to silence dissent by engaging in digital transnational repression, trolling, and cyberbullying. It floods conversations to drown out messages it perceives as unfavorable to its interests on search engines and social media feeds, and to amplify Beijing’s preferred narratives on its treatment of Uyghurs. Pro-PRC stakeholders flood information ecosystems with counternarratives, conspiracy theories, and unrelated news items to suppress narratives detailing PRC authorities’ atrocities in Xinjiang. Government social media accounts, PRC-affiliated media, private accounts, and bot clusters, likely all directed by PRC authorities, assist in this effort.
The PRC engages in a tactic decribed as “astroturfing ,” which is a coordinated campaign of inauthentic posts to create the illusion of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or viewpoint, when no such widespread support exists. Similar to flooding, the PRC uses astroturfing to inundate the information space with “positive stories ” about Xinjiang and the Uyghur population, including manufactured depictions of Uyghurs living “simple happy lives,” as well as posts emphasizing the purported economic gains that the PRC’s policies have brought to Xinjiang. In mid-2021, more than 300 pro-PRC inauthentic accounts posted thousands of videos of Uyghurs seeming to deny abuse in the region and claiming they were “very free.” These videos claimed to show widespread disagreement throughout Xinjiang with claims in international media that Uyghurs were oppressed. However, according to the New York Times and ProPublica , propaganda officials in Xinjiang created most of these videos, which first appeared on PRC-based platforms and then spread to YouTube and Twitter, in order to manipulate public opinion.
The Chinese Communist Party is also engaging in false and misleading tactics against its own population. Radio Free Asia reports that Beijing is stepping up propaganda and censorship efforts ahead of its 20th national congress, “tightening control of domestic internet users and spreading its official narrative overseas. The country’s powerful Cyberspace Administration said it had recently shut down 1.34 billion social media accounts and deleted 22 million posts. Officials told a news conference they had also investigated more than five million accounts delivering paid comments, banning some 450,000 chat groups and forums.”
Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.