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Chinese diplomacy ramps up social media offensive in COVID-19 info war

Beijings consul general in Kolkata, India promoted a social media post from RT, the Russian-backed media outlet, that blamed the United States for the pandemic. A Chinese diplomat in The Netherlands went on social media to accuse U.S. officials of spreading misinformation about the public health crisis.

Chinas ambassador to France Lu Shaye Wednesday criticized the French media for an alleged lack of independence in a series of tweets. “Theyre always following the American media,” he said.

As the world grapples with the coronavirus crisis, Chinas diplomats are waging an online information war.

A POLITICO review of social media messages by more than 100 Chinese officials showed a sizable increase in the number of posts since the COVID-19 crisis began in early 2020. Alongside more mundane content, some of Beijings diplomats have promoted content harshly critical of both United States and the European Union, dismissed criticism of how China handled the global outbreak and amplified skewed content from Russian state-backed outlets with track records of widespread misinformation.

The ramped-up activity coincides with warnings from Western diplomats and misinformation experts that Beijing has changed its online tactics in the wake of last years Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Increasingly, China has become more aggressive in promoting itself on Western social media, tapping into existing populist sentiment online that is already undermining trust in democratic systems among U.S. and EU voters.

The online push comes as the global response to the coronavirus pandemic becomes a political tug-of-war, with state-backed actors including those from China and Russia flexing their muscles to promote messaging to audiences at home and abroad. In the latest example of diplomatic pressure, Chinese officials successfully leaned on the EU last week to water down its criticism of Beijings disinformation tactics linked to COVID-19.

“If Russia is a tropical storm, then China is climate change.” — Jānis Sārts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence

“As soon as the coronavirus jumped out of China, the narratives shifted to play up the benevolence of China,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Funds Alliance for Securing Democracy. “And when Donald Tump started aggressively pushing against Chinas response, they started to change again to point the fingers at the United States.”

A spokesman for Chinas mission to the EU did not return a request for comment on how the country communication strategy has changed during the ongoing public health crisis that has left almost 220,000 people dead worldwide.

Enormous capabilities

Beijings social media push comes amid a groundswell of half-truths, rumors and outright lies about the coronavirus.

Western politicians, including President U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazils Jair Bolsonaro, have sowed doubt by promoting dubious or false theories about who created the virus and how it can be treated. People from Berlin to Boston have also taken to social media to spout bogus claims to others in search of answers.

To analyze Chinas social media strategy, Schafer and Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, reviewed the activity of more than 135 official Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts. The number of posts, collectively, has risen roughly four-fold since April 2019, when the political unrest in Hong Kong took off, according to their analysis.

That marks a stark change.

In December, just as the world was beginning to wake up to the coronavirus threat, the Chinese Twitter accounts, which at the time totaled around 100, were collectively publishing up to 4,000 posts on the social media network each month. Now, the combined monthly number has more than quadrupled to 17,000 tweets, although that figure also includes an influx of new Chinese diplomat accounts since January.

Beijings “use of Twitter feels experimental,” said Berzina in reference to Chinas evolving social media activities. “The strategy on Twitter could quickly change.”

As would be expected from an authoritarian state, many Chinese diplomats on social media (as well as government accounts linked to state media outlets and other agencies) promote content hailing Beijings achievements, including the countrys support for other nations in responding to the current public health crisis.

But others are significantly more aggressive, according to a review conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy and POLITICOs own independent analysis.

In Paris, where the countrys official embassy account has more than 15,000 followers, one post promoted content from a U.S. fringe website that attacked claims from some U.S. officials that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Last month, the same Paris-based account retweeted accusations, also made on Twitter, by Zhao Lijian, a senior official in Chinas ministry of foreign affairs, that the U.S. military may have brought the virus to China. “When did patient zero start in the United States?,” the account wrote in a post that garnered six retweets. “The U.S. owes us an explanation!”

“The Paris embassy is aggressive with its own tweets,” said Schafer. “Theyre willing to defend themselves online.”

Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to Paris, acknowledged a change in communications strategy in an interview with French newspaper LOpinion.

“Chinese diplomats respond more and more to baseless affirmations from the Western media,” he said. “Because in the past China didnt respond to this kind of attacks, today some are surprised to see it react,” he added.

Latching onto content

Chinese officials have relayed rumors, conspiracy theories and misinformation spread by state-backed media from Russia, Iran and Venezuela. So far, this strategy is more ad hoc, left to individual accounts, than a coordinated campaign directed from Beijing, according to a review of these posts by POLITICO.

In Caracas, Li Baorong, the countrys ambassador to Venezuela, shared several posts from Telesur, the local state media outlet, criticizing how the U.S. and European countries had handleRead More – Source

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