Chinese state-controlled media are placing volumes of content on popular social media platforms to air the government’s unique message about Russia’s war on Ukraine to a Western audience, analysts say. News readers don’t always know the content’s origin, they add.
The official Xinhua News Agency, the English-language newspaper China Daily and the English website of China Global Television Network (CGTN) are placing multiple spots daily on Facebook and Twitter to share Beijing’s take on the news. CGTN runs a special Facebook account for its European audience plus another for the Americas.
Messages run the gamut of China’s views on the nearly month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine. China, an ally of Russia, through its various state media outlets, has argued for Beijing’s neutrality, disputed any claims that China is backing Russia in the conflict, and extolled the search for peace through dialogue.
Many posts are linked to popular hashtags such as #Ukraine or #UkraineConflict.
“China’s ambassador to the United States said Sunday that allegations that his country is providing military assistance to Russia in its conflict with #Ukraine is ‘disinformation’,” China Daily noted in a one-sentence Facebook post on Monday.
Beijing’s outreach will pay off, said Danny Levinson, a China-based technology and cybersecurity expert.
“You say something enough times, and it becomes true,” Levinson said. “China plays a long game and has always had a very keen ability and drive to push out its messaging both internally and externally.”
China’s government owns or closely monitors all news outlets in the communist country – a sharp contrast to Western social media.
“And its external communication methods have gotten a lot easier with the rise of Western-based social media platforms that do not have the same content restrictions and moderation policies that Chinese firms have inside China,” Levinson said. “This provides fertile turf for Chinese messaging to latch onto the zeitgeist du jour.”
Sampling of content
CGTN America said via Facebook on Sunday that Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, had called it “naive to think that condemnation” of Russia could resolve the war in Ukraine. The ambassador advocated diplomacy instead.
Xinhua complained Thursday on Facebook that “double-standard coverage of (the) Russia-Ukraine conflict” had been “hypocritical, deplorable.” The post teased a longer Xinhua commentary accusing Western media of being “racist” in its war coverage.
Some Chinese social media posts, however, cover news much like that of Western media. For example, one item this month mentioned the United Nations chief announcing emergency funds for humanitarian aid in Ukraine.
CGTN said on Facebook on February 25 that 100,000 people had fled Ukraine and that on March 3 Russian President Vladimir Putin held a moment of silence for the Russian soldiers who had died there.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment on this report.
Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school, said media-savvy Chinese officials see the social media outreach as “information warfare” to give their country its “own version of the story.”
“If you see CGTN, then of course you say it has a certain point of view,” he said. “That’s the nature of information warfare.”
China would call its use of social media a “legitimate action” – especially if Chinese media outlets pay platforms for posting content, said James Gomez, regional director of the Bangkok-based Asia Centre think tank.
But for some readers, it’s not always clear that the Chinese government is behind ads and content appearing on Western social media outlets, Gomez said.
Facebook forbids ads from government institutions but not necessarily those placed by “agencies” that may be linked to government, he said. Facebook and Twitter label content from known news outlets as coming from “China state-affiliated media.”
“I think the story is really identifying the placer of the ad and show linkages back to government control, the propaganda unit or publicity unit of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) in order to call out Facebook,” Gomez said.
Meta-owned Facebook has been called out for letting CGTN place ads promoting Russian propaganda about the war. The ads are aimed at audiences in Hong Kong and Central Asian countries, Axios reported on March 9.
Facebook did not respond to VOA’s requests for a comment.
Throughout social media, there is the “information war raging across Central Asia, with the public attacked from all sides,” observed Beruniy Alimov, journalism professor and director of New Media Education Center in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“Social media were supposed to be platforms for exchanging personal views. But they have now become front lines for political and cultural propaganda and agitation,” said Alimov.
He said the younger generation in the region needs to be more media literate to identify disinformation and misinformation when they see it from any source.
VOA’s Navbahor Imamova and the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.