12 May 2021
China used social media to spread misinformation to discredit western media during pandemic, report finds
By Zena Chamas
Posted 27mminutes ago, updated 18 minutes ago
- While Twitter is banned in China, many use the platform to entice heated discussion in support of China’s detention camps in Xinjian
- Data from the report shows growing concerns over the use of both disinformation and misinformation as tactics
- Beijing has stepped up its news offerings, providing content in “non-Anglophone languages”, the report found
At the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s global media influence was in full swing, using social media to discredit western media outlets and spread propaganda, a new report finds.
As the pandemic started to spread in 2020, Beijing used its media infrastructure globally to seed positive narratives about China in national media, as well as mobilising disinformation, a report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) found.
The report, based on an original survey that polled 54 journalist unions from 50 different countries and territories, found that China had been using the pandemic to boost its image in global media coverage.
“The types of things that [Beijing] is pushing, it’s not just messages on china but exploiting messages on the west,” one of the authors of the report, researcher Julia Bergin said during a roundtable discussion.
She said China has used free social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter as a “reverse tactic” to discredit western media, like the BBC when it reports on the mistreatment of Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region.
Twitter is banned in China but many Chinese nationalists use the platform to entice heated discussion in support of China’s detention camps in Xinjian or use propaganda videos to switch the narrative.
China denies they are detention camps and describes them as boarding schools.
‘Fake news arrives even more rapidly than the virus itself’
Data from the report shows growing concerns over the use of both disinformation and misinformation as tactics, with an 82 per cent rise of disinformation reported.
“Fake news arrives even more rapidly than the virus itself,” Italian journalist Luca RIgion said to the discussion panel.
Michael Keane, an academic from the Queensland University of Technology, said there is a “negative light” in which Chinese media is often portrayed in Western democracies such as Australia.
“At least in [Australia] we have pluralistic media but in China you don’t have a pluralistic media and that’s a fact,” he told the panel.
Beijing has stepped up its news offerings, providing domestic and international content tailored for each country in “non-Anglophone languages”, the report found.
“At the same time, Beijing has weaponised foreign journalist visas, forcing resident journalists out of China.”
“The vacuum in coverage is increasingly being filled by state-approved content, which is sometimes offered for free, to these countries,” the report read.
Many journalists and media companies around the world have been censored or arrested by China, including many of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and influencers.
This report, which builds on the IFJ’s previous report – The China Story: Reshaping the World’s Media — found that globally, 56 per cent of all countries surveyed reported that coverage of China in their country had become more positive overall since the COVID-19 outbreak, while only 24 per cent said coverage of China had become more negative.
China uses the lack of western media coverage in the region to its advantage, pushing out digestible content that’s available to major news organisations who don’t have eyes in the region, the report suggests.
“China is using a multi-pronged approach to redraw the information landscape to benefit its own global image, ” it read.
n 2020, Beijing effectively shut down journalistic access to China through visa denials and freezes, partly driven by international border closures.
The shutdown created a vacuum in China coverage, where there was a high demand for stories from China, which China filled with state-sponsored content already available through content-sharing agreements, it found.
The research found that content offered to global journalists has become more tailored with efforts being made to translate Chinese propaganda into different languages, even those that are not widely spoken such as Italian and Serbian.
“The media is quite robust but we need to think about the vulnerability of western media. [Their] vulnerability is economic,” report researcher Louisa Lim said.
The IFJ recommends more engagement in the region, with a strategy to reach out to and create relationships with Chinese journalists inside and outside China.