Disinformation on Xinjiang
The CCP, fringe media and US social media platforms play a role in shaping the Chinese government's global narrative on Xinjiang.
Albert Zhang, Jacob Wallis, Zoe Meers, Nathan Ruser
The Chinese Communist Party, fringe media and pro-CCP online actors have sought —sometimes in unison—to shape and influence international perceptions of the Chinese Government’s policies and actions in Xinjiang, including through the amplification of disinformation.
A proliferation of credible evidence, including media reporting, independent research, testimonies and open-source data, has revealed abuses including forced labour, mass detention, surveillance, sterilisation, cultural erasure and alleged genocide in China’s Xinjiang region.
Since early 2020, there’s been a stark increase in the Chinese Government and state media’s use of US social media networks to push alternative narratives and disinformation about the situation in Xinjiang to distract from such abuses.
Covert and overt online information campaigns have been deployed to portray positive narratives about the CCP’s domestic policies in the region, while also injecting disinformation into the global public discourse regarding Xinjiang.
The CCP is using tactics including leveraging US social media platforms to criticise and smear Uyghur victims, journalists and researchers who work on this topic, as well as their organisations. Chinese state media accounts have been most successful in using Facebook to engage and reach an international audience.
Chinese Government officials and state media are also increasingly amplifying content, including disinformation, independently produced by fringe media and conspiracist websites that are often sympathetic to the narrative positioning of authoritarian regimes. This amplifies the reach and influence of these sites in the Western media ecosystem.
The CCP’s propaganda tactics and information campaigns are evolving to contest global narratives on sensitive issues. In January 2021 for example, Zhuang Rongwen, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China and a deputy minister in the Central Propaganda Department, gave a speech pointing out the need for the CCP to avoid negative or critical perspectives in domestic reporting, exercise strict control over content and find innovative methods to spread propaganda on social media platforms.
Our analysis of Twitter and Facebook data uncovered multiple approaches intended to influence global narratives on Xinjiang, but we focused on two different online tactics. First, Chinese state-owned media outlets and Chinese diplomats leveraging fringe media; and second, pro-CCP actors amplifying Chinese state-affiliated accounts.
The Grayzone is a fringe news source, and its reach has been amplified by Chinese and Russian state-affiliated entities. Between December 2019 and February 2021, The Grayzone was cited in English at least 252 times in Chinese state-owned news outlets (the Global Times, CGTN and Xinhua) and a further 61 times in People’s Daily Online articles. Before December 2019, we could find no mentions of The Grayzone by Chinese media outlets in either English or Chinese.
Chinese diplomats and state media appear to have first started amplifying The Grayzone in December 2019 after the outlet published an article attempting to discredit Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz.
According to CrowdTangle data, that article attracted more than 8,500 Facebook interactions. Chinese Government spokesperson Zhao Lijian first retweeted the article on 30 December 2019, followed by Chinese Government spokesperson Hua Chunying, who tweeted the article months later in March 2020. Now it continues to be actively used in online attempts to counter references to the incarceration of Uyghurs in China.
The Grayzone gets 61.17% of its traffic from social media and around 89.63% of that traffic from Twitter (as of February 2021, according to SimilarWeb).
The consistent amplification of The Grayzone by Chinese state media, suggests that this is coordinated targeting of an audience that the CCP assesses to be vulnerable to its counter-messaging on Xinjiang.
On TikTok, previous analysis has shown that politically sensitive Xinjiang-related content may be moderated or curated.
TikTok is owned and operated by the Chinese company ByteDance, which collaborates with public security bureaus across China and plays an active role in disseminating CCP propaganda on Xinjiang.
In August 2020, ASPI ICPC research found that, out of 444 publicly visible videos using the hashtag #Xinjiang, only 5.6% were critical of the CCP’s policies in the region.
Analysis of the #Xinjiang hashtag in March 2021 showed similar results: the hashtag had more than 9 million views in total, but the top three videos on the #xinjiang hashtag page depicted beautiful Xinjiang landscapes and had fewer than 600 likes each.
In addition, the Xinjiang hashtag in Mandarin (#新疆) had more than 900,000 views distributed between 245 publicly accessible videos, but only one video was critical of CCP policies. In contrast, there appears to be less effort to curate the #uyghur and #uyghurlivesmatter hashtags (in English), which had nearly 65 million and 9 million views, respectively, and most videos in the top 20 were critical of the CCP.
Since the end of 2019, there’s been an increase in the use of Facebook and Twitter accounts by Chinese Government and state media to push alternative narratives and disinformation about the situation in Xinjiang, often by amplifying third party content.
Over that period, the most active accounts posting about Xinjiang were mostly Chinese state media or accounts whose content can often align with CCP narratives.
For example, Jerry’s China, an account by an Australian living in Guangdong, posted 697 times on Twitter about Xinjiang in 2020 and was retweeted by Li Bijian, the Consul General of China in Karachi, Pakistan, among others.
The CCP, however, is losing control over the Xinjiang narrative on US social media platforms. In 2018, the Twitter accounts of Xinhua News, the China Daily, the China Global Television Network (CGTN) and the Global Times were the top four accounts that accumulated the most likes for tweets mentioning Xinjiang.
But by 2020, the official Twitter account of the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received the most likes for tweets mentioning Xinjiang. Xinhua News was the only Chinese state media account remaining in the top 10.
On Facebook, it is a different situation. Public Chinese state media accounts have engaged and reached more users than on Twitter. According to CrowdTangle data from 2018 to 2020 that examines public pages and groups, public Chinese state media accounts were consistently in the top 10 Facebook accounts accumulating the most likes on their posts mentioning Xinjiang.
China’s approach to diplomatic and state media messaging has had to adapt in order to project power and influence in an open internet environment, where it has fewer levers to control information and shape opinion than it does over the Chinese internet.
Shock tactics, disinformation, the circulation of conspiracy theories and leveraging fringe media outlets and individuals when their narratives align are new tools in the CCP’s propaganda arsenal as it attempts to portray its control of Xinjiang positively in the face of credible, mounting evidence of human rights abuses and international criticism.
The CCP’s diplomatic and state media messaging is linked to the party’s objective of improving its so-called discourse power. The Chinese state is using some tactics similar to Russia in the online media environment, in order both to gain traction with audiences in the West, and to distract and distort investigations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang by international civil society.
This report finds that efforts by the CCP to contest narratives about Xinjiang continue to evolve. These efforts are multipronged and cross-platform.
As this report shows, some of the CCP’s efforts are more effective at driving impact than others. However, public statements by propaganda officials suggest that the CCP will continue to trial new ways of distracting from, and suppressing where it can, international criticism of its systems of governance and control – especially on Xinjiang.