THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing on “How the People’s Republic of China Amplifies Russian Disinformation.” My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am the moderator. First, I’ll introduce our briefers, and then I will give the ground rules.
Briefing with us today are Maria Repnikova, associate professor at Georgia State University, and Mr. Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Maria Repnikova is a scholar of global communication and an expert on China’s media environment, especially in the African context, as well as the China-Russia nexus. She is the author of Chinese Soft Power and Media Politics in China and is currently a fellow at the Wilson Center. Bret Schafer is head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team. He is the creator and manager of Hamilton 2.0, an online open-source dashboard tracking the outputs of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media outlets, diplomats, and government officials. He is an expert in computational propaganda, state-backed information operations, and tech regulation.
Together, they will discuss the Russia-China disinformation nexus with a focus on the Global South, as well as the country’s increasing information warfare campaigns within the context of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. I’d like to thank Dr. Repnikova and Mr. Schafer for sharing their expertise today.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record and the briefers are independent experts. The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website. Our briefers will give a presentation and then we will open it up for questions. If you’d like to ask a question, you can use either the raise hand button or submit your question in the chat. If you’re called on, we’ll ask you to unmute yourself to ask your question.
And with that, I will pass it over to Mr. Schafer. Over to you.
MR SCHAFER: Thanks very much, Jen. I’m gonna share my screen here quickly.
Hopefully, you all can see that. Good morning. My name is Bret Shafer. I’m a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, also the head of our information manipulation team. So at the alliance, we systematically track the social media posts from Russian and Chinese diplomats, government officials, and state-affiliated media across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, state-sponsored websites, and through MFA briefings. This is all available on our dashboard, the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, and in March we also launched a War in Ukraine dashboard to specifically track messaging about the war.
From that data, what’s clear is that there has been an increase in the alignment between the narratives promoted by Russian and Chinese officials and entities. This is often reported as China adopting Russia’s preferred language and narratives about the war, but what we often see is that there is a two-way street of amplification where Russian officials are also increasing their engagement with Chinese officials online, sometimes to validate their talking points but often because their worldview on certain topics are so closely aligned. One metric we can cite to highlight this phenomenon is the number of retweets of Chinese officials from Russian officials and vice versa.
So through the first four months in 2022, we have seen almost three times as many retweets of Chinese diplomats from Russian sources that we saw on the same period in 2021. This is largely driven by amplification of Russian state media outlet RT, but we’ve also seen this occur at the diplomatic level. So one example is the Chinese embassy in Paris, which has on several occasions retweeted the Russian embassy in Paris, including on sensitive topics like war crime denialism in Bucha.
As mentioned, we can also observe this amplification happening in reverse with Russian officials retweeting Chinese Government officials and state media. So through the first four months of 2022, Russian diplomats have retweeted Chinese officials more than 140 times, a nearly 10-time increase in the number of retweets in the same period as 2021. Here, however, the most retweeted accounts are not state media but are in fact Chinese officials, most notably Chinese officials affiliated with the ministry of foreign affairs, including the official ministry of foreign affairs account.
So as you can see, much of this content has a significant anti-American tone. The key driver of this messaging tends to be Zhao Lijian, the ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, who has a significant presence on social media, close to 1 million followers at this point. The two examples shown on your screen here are tweets from Zhao Lijian that have been retweeted by the Russian embassy in Montenegro and the Russian embassy in Kenya.
Beyond of course the direct amplification of each other’s messengers, we also see adoption of sort of similar alignment around the messaging, particularly related to the war in Ukraine. So I’m going to walk you through a couple of the key narratives here that we’ve seen Russian sources promoting both before and since the invasion in Ukraine that we’ve also seen Chinese sources adopting in their external messaging as well.
So one of the key narratives, of course, is the idea that NATO is the aggressor in this war. This of course is a line that has been pushed by Russian officials and Russian state medias for years leading up to the invasion. But we’ve seen a clear adoption of this line from Chinese sources as well since the invasion in February.
We’ve also seen this with direct adoption of the Kremlin talking point that NATO expansion is directly to blame for the conflict. Again, this was a talking point that was not entirely absent from Chinese messaging before the war, but we have seen a significant increase since the start of the war.
A few examples are on your screen here – one from a Chinese diplomat in Africa, another from Chinese state media – again, directly sort of adopting language used by the Kremlin to justify its invasion on the basis of the need to defend its security interests.
On the screen is some data just looking at the increase in this kind of messaging since the start of the war. So mentions of NATO’s from Chinese official sources that we monitor on our Hamilton dashboard have increased significantly in the first four months of 2022 compared to the entirety of 2021. In particular, we’ve seen almost a tenfold increase in the number of tweets about NATO expansion, particularly NATO expansion being the root cause of the current conflict in Ukraine.
A second talking point that we have monitored over the last several months has been the whataboutism argument, in the sense of, “What about U.S. wars?”, essentially saying that the U.S. is not in a position to criticize Russia’s war given previous U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other regions.
So again, this is not something that is entirely new in Chinese state messaging. We have seen this for years. It is a consistent theme and trope in Chinese state media messaging, as well as the messaging coming from Chinese officials. However, again, we have seen an increase in the focus on U.S. real and perceived failings since Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Two examples of this messaging, again, from a diplomatic account in Japan and a Chinese state media account, are on the screen, talking essentially about the fact, again, as I mentioned, that the real focus should be on U.S. activity in the former Yugoslavia – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and others.
What we’re able to do through our dashboard is look at the countries that are associated with tweets about a particular topic. So when querying the term war, what you actually see from Chinese officials that we monitor is that, besides China – where of course much of the messaging is talking about diplomatic statements made by Chinese officials – the most mentioned country in the context of war from Chinese officials in 2022 is the United States, not Ukraine or Russia. And in fact, there’s almost double the number of mentions of the United States as there are Russia – again, in the context of tweets about the war.
Russian officials have spoken more, actually, about Russia and Ukraine’s war than they have about the United States. But again, the United States is the third most mentioned country in Russian tweets about the war. Here again is where we see sort of interest alignment focusing on the United States role in the world, anti-U.S. foreign policy as being sort of a root cause and an explanation for what is currently happening in Ukraine.
Of note, you also see in Chinese messaging a number of tweets that mention Iraq, Afghanistan, again, as I mentioned, kind of redirecting and distracting from the current war by focusing on past U.S. wars.
The third talking point that we have noted for years, looking at Russian state media messaging, is the idea that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis, that there needs to be denazification happening within Ukraine. Obviously, this has been a main justification made by the Kremlin over the last several months.
We again have seen Beijing adopting this talking point. Again, looking at a retweet from a Chinese diplomat in Japan, as well as a Chinese state media outlet, we see direct amplification of Russian sources in both cases, retweeting or citing Russian state media coverage of Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups.
This, however, was not a narrative that we saw prior to the invasion in Ukraine. It was almost completely absent from Chinese messaging prior to the war. Looking back, again, at the entirety of 2021, there are about 230 mentions of Nazis in Chinese state media and Chinese diplomatic outputs on Twitter. Most of those references were historical references, talking about commemorations around World War 2, for example. There was almost no mention of Ukrainian Nazis prior to 2022. We only found two tweets in the entirety of our data set that directly connected Nazism or neo-Nazism to Ukraine. Since the start of 2022, that number has increased to 108. So this is an entirely new narrative that Russia – or excuse me, that China has really adopted from Russia since the start of the war.
A fourth sort of narrative alignment is around the specific language used to describe what is happening in Ukraine. As is the case within Russia where “special operation” or “special military operation” is used instead of terms like “war” or “invasion,” we have seen Chinese officials and Chinese state media using the same sort of sanitized language. At times, there’s actually been justification of using this language. We’ve seen the spokesperson from China saying that this term was not used, the term “invasion,” to describe Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not true. But we have seen a continued use of “special operation” used instead of the term “invasion.”
Again, looking through our data set, the first – the first four months of 2022, we see “military operation” used nearly 800 times and “invasion” used just over 600 times. And that even is a bit misleading, because many of the mentions of “invasion,” again, are talking about past U.S. invasions and are not used in the context of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Finally, we have seen an amplification of Kremlin-promoted conspiracies, particularly around a U.S. bioweapons program in Ukraine. This was a main topic that was promoted by Russian sources in mid-March, and we saw Chinese officials promoting it as well to an extensive degree. This in many ways dovetails with earlier Chinese disinformation around the origins of the coronavirus, connecting it to the Fort Detrick lab in the U.S. state of Maryland. But we saw Chinese officials actually promoting this narrative to a greater degree than Russian officials, who initially put out these statements.
There are a few more examples here of the promotion of this narrative that the U.S. is working with the Ukrainians to build bioweapons or chemical weapons. This includes a retweet from the Chinese consul-general in Belfast tweeting outright disinformation that the U.S. embassy had removed any evidence of a bioresearch program in Ukraine. That was not true; that deletion never took place. That tweet that is shown on your screen was actually citing a completely different domain to try to promote this idea that the U.S. was trying to whitewash its involvement in any sort of bioresearch activity in Ukraine.
And we’re also seen outright conspiracy theories promoted by Chinese officials. So Sputnik ran an article essentially saying that Zelenskyy was hiding in the U.S. embassy in Poland. We saw the same Chinese official, the Chinese consul-general in Belfast, retweeting that same narrative, essentially saying that Zelenskyy was being shot in front of a greenscreen, that he had deserted Ukraine. This, of course, was not accurate.
Finally, why does this matter? So the EU and many of the tech platforms have obviously taken action against Russian state media since the start of the war. That has impacted Russian state media’s ability to reach audiences, particularly in the West. So this is a look at Facebook data from the first week of February, obviously before the war, before any of the restrictions were put in place, and the Chinese – or, excuse me, the Russian state media pages that we track on Facebook had roughly 120,000 interactions. In the last seven days, those interaction numbers have dropped to just over 26,000, so a significant decrease in the number of interactions that Russian sources have been able to garner on Facebook. So, of course, Russia needs another way to get its message out to wider audiences. Chinese state media pages have over a billion followers on Facebook alone, so it has become a key conduit to reach audiences in the West now that Russian state media is no longer able to reach audiences, particularly in Europe.
We have also seen Beijing state media giving space to Russian messengers. So Lee Camp, who was formerly with RT America, and you have Scott Ritter, who is a frequent contributor to Sputnik and RT, and George Galloway, who hosts a podcast on Sputnik – they’ve all been given airtime on Chinese state media sources over the last several months. These are just a few examples; there are many more.
So, in conclusion, what we have clearly seen in our data and the evidence points to an increased alignment between Chinese and Russian messaging over the past several months, and what that suggests is that the no-limit relationship clearly extends to the information space as well.
So I will stop there and I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Mr. Schafer. We’ll now turn it over to Professor Repnikova for her presentation. Professor? Professor, I believe you’re on mute.
MS REPNIKOVA: There we go, unmuted.
MS REPNIKOVA: One more time making a mistake. Okay, I’m here. Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a real honor and pleasure to speak to all of you, and I learned a lot from Bret’s presentation. I think he covers a really great breadth in terms of the latest nexus in disinformation and kind of co-sharing of similar narratives during the Russia-Ukraine war between China and Russia.
So I’m going to kind of step back a little bit and give some background about the development of this information nexus, like where it’s coming from, what’s the history behind this evolving closeness between China and Russia when it comes to information governance and media politics, and then talk a little bit about what I’m seeing from a more kind of qualitative perspective from Ukraine war and what the implications of this are.
So starting with kind of the background, so the evolving nexus of the disinformation war. So I wanted to briefly step back and note that China-Russia relationship has been getting increasingly close in several arenas, including economic, trade exchanges, people-to-people ties; of course, the relationship between Putin and Xi themselves is a very unique relationship and has been described as filled with a certain chemistry or shared affinity. And on February 4th, we saw – we observed Putin’s visit to China and the declaration of boundless friendship as kind of this next step in this relationship.
So we do see these kind of various steps of merging between China and Russia over the past I would say two decades, and media and information space is also one of these arenas. And in part, I think it’s important to step back even further to note that Chinese and Russian media systems in some ways are complementary for this kind of exchanges or co-creation of narratives. Both media systems are heavily state-controlled, in different ways, right? In China we see complete ownership of all media outlets; in Russia it’s more varied, but we do see significant control over television and major news agencies by the state directly or indirectly. So in many ways, there is kind of a fertile ground for guidance by the state of narratives about one another.
So what we see is also since 2015, this – various forums taking place, media forums and that specifically deal with media relations, state-media relations. Chinese and Russian state media signing certain agreements about content sharing, which means providing each other with various content, as well as trainings – Russian journalists visiting China and vice versa – and the notion of amplification of one another’s image. So we see a lot of mutually positive representation of each other domestically – so for instance, China being presented in a very positive light in Russia and Russia very positively presented in China. And more broadly, this notion of shaping public opinion globally, especially in the Global South, and joint narratives. Of course, we see this very much playing out in the context of Ukraine war.
So up until the war, we already see some of these developments taking place. For example, we see, from my analysis of Chinese media and Russian media, largely positive representations of one another in state media, very limited critique. In the context of China, where I focused most of my research when I visited and interviewed journalists from major state news agency, Xinhua News Agency in 2018, I was informed that covering Russia in a critical way or in a negative way is considered to be fairly sensitive. So overall, there are directives, implicit and explicit, about how Russia should be covered, which means that certain issues like protest movements, any contestation against Putin’s regime, is not covered in Russian media; and Russia’s involvement in external conflicts, not only this war but previous wars as well, is also covered with great caution. So that’s something we observed much before the war.
And in the context of Russian media, we also see increasingly positive representation of China. And some of this representation is direct echoing of Chinese official narratives about very sensitive human rights issues, including the issues concerning the camps in Xinjiang, Hong Kong movements, independence movements, and Taiwan and so forth – directly echoing official rhetoric from China. So kind of channeling its propaganda narratives onto Russian media and to be read, or at least seen, by some Russian publics.
And we do see, pre-war, also joint attempts at pushback against Western hegemonies. It’s kind of co-construction of the so-called joint enemy, meaning the West, particularly the United States. This again kind of predates the war. In particular, in the Global South, we see this kind of echoing of one another or pushing out messages that resonate with each other when it comes to blaming or framing the U.S. as ineffective, failing, as an aggressor, and so forth. This messaging was happening much before this current conflict.
So shifting forward towards this current war, what I was observing is China’s selective mirroring of Russia’s narrative. So Bret already talked about various points of narrative kind of conversions. I want to talk about a few other points that I’ve observed.
So first we see underreporting of atrocities. So specifically for domestic audiences in China, there’s been very limited coverage of the war in Ukraine. So I think that’s worth noting because one thing is for external communication, but the other is for domestic publics. Domestic audience has not been exposed to the imagery, for instance, of Bucha massacre or many other horrendous atrocities of this war. They do get exposed primarily to Russian footage or very subtle, kind of ambivalent messages about the war, where China takes kind of a middle ground. So limited coverage or underreporting – I see this as very much directed by the state.
We also see selective adoption of content – the Chinese state media including some Russian media narratives but also footage about the war. If you turn on – Xīnmín Wǎnbào is kind of the evening footage news coverage of China’s main television station, you see that a lot of footage comes from Russia, directly from Russian media. So it’s either directly incorporating – it’s citing Russian media, having correspondents based in Russia, very limited footage coming from Ukraine. So that’s another point here of selective mirroring.
We also see some directives beyond the media – for example, quite a number of provincial universities have publicized directives about how to talk about this war. And in the context of how to talk about it, again there’s kind of a slight pro-Russia slant in these narratives, and very strict directives about how to speak about the West in this context, what not to mention, kind of mirroring official propaganda messaging in the media. So it goes beyond the media. It kind of targets larger layers of society, including university students.
We also see the co-creation of shared enemy. Once again, that’s already something we’ve seen before the war. But Bret already covered this, Chinese foreign ministry spokespeople in particular framing the U.S. and NATO as the key adversary and instigator, very much echoing Russia’s narratives, although I would argue that’s quite an opportunistic move because it’s a convenient narrative for them to adopt when it comes to their external communication, and very much targeting domestic audiences as well with that, something I’ll mention a bit more in detail later.
So we also see, of course, selective amplification of direct disinformation. And I’m not going to go into it because again, Bret already talked about biolabs and many other narratives that directly fit into the disinformation bracket. But it’s worth kind of noting here that it’s not all disinformation. Some of it is selective adaptation, mirroring their other, more subtle techniques in which this convergence takes place.
And we also see some divergence, right, it’s not all convergence. For example, there hasn’t been official endorsement of Russia’s invasion in Chinese state media or in Chinese official narratives, right – they’re not directly endorsing this invasion or advocating for this war as a necessary kind of existential war for Russia.
There’s also quite – divergences across different news outlets when it comes to Chinese media and how this war is covered. So domestic media primarily neglects kind of the Ukraine position here, but international outlets like CGTN have provided some coverage from Ukraine, so covering it from the Ukrainian perspective, but also direct footage coming from Ukraine. So I think that’s a point of divergence here across media outlets. They’re not uniform. It’s not a monolithic media system; some outlets have different agendas than others. And Chinese state and state media externally at least attempt to play this role of kind of amplifying China’s voice and story and becoming an instrument of soft power, competing with outlets like BBC or CNN or Al Jazeera. So as a result, they have to take a more balanced approach. So CGTN, I think, is a good example of that.
We also see some tensions and divergences across official Chinese voices. So those voices from the foreign ministry, like Zhao Lijian, tend to amplify some pro-Russia narratives and disinformation kind of tropes. But then other voices, like the ambassador to the United Nations, for instance, and other officials take much more neutral positions. So we see some frictions even across the officials speaking for China internationally. It’s not a uniform voice.
And just very briefly, we also see China appearing in Russian media coverage, right, of this war. And it’s not all kind of one-sided, although of course in this context we’re focusing on China; it’s worth noting that at least on some occasions in state Russian media, China was noted as the sole kind of important ally, so the amplification of this idea that China stands with Russia. There’s also some narratives around China being a role model. I was really struck by the Russia Today producer Simonyan noting at a recent talk show in Russia about how in China there’s high economic growth and limited media freedom, and yet that’s something that seems to work for China. That’s something that has been neglected in some other discussions, but it’s worth noting it here.
So let me just shift over a little bit. Okay, so noting that there’s kind of a joint co-creation, but in the context of Russian media, of course, there is less mention of China than in the context of Chinese media mentioning Russia – because the war, of course, is focusing on Russia – it will be really interesting to see how this plays out in the context of a conflict that China would be engaged in. Say, if we see a reunification with Taiwan, would Russian media similarly support Chinese narratives? It’s not quite clear to me that that would be the case.
And very briefly here, moving toward some implications, I think it’s worth noting that a lot of these disinformation tactics, at least on the Chinese side, in my view they serve domestic legitimation purposes. So it’s more about appealing to domestic publics, nationalistic publics, versus appealing to external audiences in my understanding, especially when you look at domestic discussions on social media in China. On Weibo, you see that there’s quite a convergence between what these officials like Zhao Lijian are positioning or saying on Twitter, and this message is getting translated and amplified domestically to kind of position China as a challenger to the West. So I see this purpose that’s being served is at first domestic.
And when we think about external kind of I guess outcomes or implications, it is true that China is providing a platform for some Russian voices but also amplifying Russian media. But at the same time, when we think about kind of the perceptions of Chinese media globally and Chinese Twitter diplomacy, I would say it’s largely negative. The existing surveys suggest that there is a credibility gap for Chinese state media. A lot of publics, including in the Global South, but also in the West – especially in the West – don’t trust Chinese state media and they don’t trust the statements made by Chinese diplomats.
So I’m a little bit skeptical about how effective this disinformation is or how effective this kind of channeling of Russian voices is when it comes to shaping public opinion globally. I think if we see some effects, we may see some of it in the Global South, but that’s because a lot of these countries, including their leaders and publics, have pre-existing skepticism towards the West and pre-existing critiques of kind of this positioning of this war as this good versus evil. They take a stance where they also critique the United States and its own unaccountable wars, and as a result, they may echo some of these Chinese messages. But I would be skeptical about how resonant this disinformation approach is when it comes to the audiences in the West.
So I’ll conclude there. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Professor. We will now begin the Q&A for today’s briefing. As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, you can please use the raise hand button and submit it in the chat. We did have an advance question submitted from Oystein Bogen from TV2 Norway. I believe he’s here. I can read the question or he can elaborate on it, but his question was: “Major news agencies Reuters and Associated Press are among those redistributing daily video packages from CCTV to their global clients on a large scale. What is your opinion on this practice, and to which degree do you think this contributes to Chinese and Russian disinformation having an impact on audiences around the world?
And Professor, if you can turn off your screen sharing, we’ll just go back to the group format. Thank you.
Bret or Maria, does one of you want to take that question?
MR SCHAFER: I can take a first stab at it. I think one of the differences between Chinese and Russian state media is the extent to which China has significant affiliate agreements with outlets across the globe. So while Russia probably has greater reach through some of its state media outlets, particularly RT, what they don’t have is the significant number of direct agreements that essentially gets content placed into legitimate Western media outlets – so the MSN agreement, for example, I think with Xinhua, where you just have Xinhua content just appearing on MSN’s aggregator. That exists across the world.
One of the things we have noted, actually, in some of the research we’ve done looking at China’s ability to dominate search results on particularly sensitive topics, so things like Xinjiang, particular COVID narratives – a lot of times, some of the top search results do not appear to be Chinese state media. One very good example from actually a Nordic country is the Helsinki Times, which clearly has an affiliate agreement. I think it is People’s Daily. But there is a Chinese media section in the Helsinki Times, but if you see this in a search result, it just appears to be coming from Helsinki Times. So you’re getting essentially a Chinese perspective laundered through another media outlet.
And so I think that creates a real problem around just the basic issue of transparency. If audiences are not aware that what they’re reading is directly from, in some cases, a Chinese state media source or, in the example you gave, is video taken from a Chinese broadcaster, I think that’s just inherently a problem because you just lose the context that allows audiences to contextualize information to evaluate whether or not it’s credible. So broadly speaking, I think that is an issue, and it’s frankly probably a bigger issue for China than Russia, although Ruptly also obviously has a pretty significant reach as well and many Ruptly videos appear in other outlets without kind of clear indication that that’s coming from a Russian source.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a number of hands raised, so I will call on first Robert Delaney from South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Robert.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me okay?
QUESTION: Great. Thanks very much for doing this presentation. So I was wondering – obviously, the – early on before the war, there was an expectation – or as the war started, there was an expectation that Putin’s goals might be wrapped up quite quickly. But we’ve seen that, obviously, this has dragged out what appears to be a lot longer than Russia expected. There have also been losses, of course, in the United Nations in terms of condemnation of Russia. There’s also the vote that threw Russia off of the UN Human Rights Council.
So I’m just wondering – and this question goes out to either of you – is there any – like, to what extent have you been able to monitor how this sort of extended timeframe and these apparent military losses by the – by Russia and the losses within the framework of the UN – is there any ability to analyze how that has affected the messaging that – I mean, that is – is the messaging becoming more strident because of this? Or is – does there appear to be any kind of pulling back on the messaging? Thank you.
MS REPNIKOVA: I don’t know if you – if – Bret, if you want to highlight any trends first, but I can highlight a few things I’ve observed, but – yeah. So in terms of any shifts, from what I’ve seen, there’s been a pretty consistent narrative from the Chinese media side in terms of how this war is presented, especially for domestic publics. And I think one of the key features that I mentioned at the beginning is under-reporting this conflict.
So we just don’t see as much coverage or, as some of these losses, as you mentioned, become more apparent or some of the war crimes are also becoming exposed to Western media and investigations, those are not being shown to, again, Chinese publics, and they’re not being discussed by Chinese diplomats, either. At times there is some ambiguity that’s being channeled through these narratives; for example, kind of questioning to what extent there was a real crime or a real event or kind of in some ways, again, echoing disinformation from Russia.
I was struck by one particular faculty professor. actually from China. tweeting about the fact that Bucha massacre was not a war crime because these civilians in Ukraine are armed, they’re soldiers, so therefore it’s basically part of war. So he made this statement that attracted millions of audiences and it’s been also shared on social media in the West. So it’s interesting how this kind of messaging plays out, but that’s one part of it.
I think the bigger part is just under-reporting and under-covering it, in part because – and I’m just going to speak about China, but in China specifically, there’s a major crisis at the moment, as you know, with COVID lockdown, and I think that’s taking up all the news and all the energy of the government leading up to this 20th Party Congress’s big meeting where Xi’s supposed to get another term. So it’s a huge kind of political event coming up, very sensitive time in China, and they’re not really rocking the boat with filtering more news, especially news that are potentially sensitive about Russia or negative about Russia’s performance to domestic audiences. That’s what I’ve observed.
MR SCHAFER: I would agree with that. I think there’s been a couple pivot points when there has been a sort of general questioning of whether China might back off. We have not seen that. If anything, generally, we’ve seen a doubling down.
But I would agree with Maria that on particularly sensitive topics, there’s generally been a posture to ignore them, by and large. I mean, a few of the more wolf warrior diplomats will talk about it, will adopt some Chinese talking – or, excuse me, Russian talking points denying the war crimes happen. But for the most part, those are just under-covered, and that would be the dominant trend we’ve seen as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’ll now go to Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jen, and I thank both presenters for very timely, very compelling presentations. A few questions, if I may, and let me start with the targeted audience question. Who are they targeting exactly when they act together? I’m, of course, particularly interested in a vulnerable region such as the South Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia. But we have also seen how the false Russian biolab story, for instance, came to circulate among the far right in the Western capitals.
And another puzzle here is that we have also heard that the administration officials are recently talking about how Putin is getting bad information or limited information from his advisers. Curious how the Kremlin and the CCP disinformation machine is also used in order to fool their own leaders, if you want.
And another question is about the means that they are using. We have seen so many social media accounts with fake photos, having been used for things like pushing Russian propaganda about Ukraine or to spread Chinese disinformation separately. Some even go too far in finding their ways to a U.S. audience by even pitching software and services to potential customers. Why are they doing this?
And my last question is sort of circling back to the first one. How can people in vulnerable countries with lack of press freedom such as Azerbaijan, of course, vaccinate themselves against Russia-China disinformation campaign? Thank you so much again.
MS REPNIKOVA: Okay. I can start with a few points and then turn it over to Bret. So in terms of the audiences, it’s a tricky question, right, because it’s very hard to know exactly what audiences are being targeted. Something that’s worth noting for – from Chinese perspective or China’s perspective when it comes to its external communication, and state media communication more broadly, is that they often are not quite as aware of how they’re being perceived or what their audiences actually think of them externally. That’s something I came across in my field work, research where they would question to what extent their own work is effective.
And when you read Chinese writings about state media persuasion externally, they would argue that actually, it’s quite challenged. They’re not really reaching the audiences internationally that they’d like to reach, especially in the West, that they still have a lot of work to do. And oftentimes, they, not surprisingly, blame the West, the United States for its so-called discourse hegemony, the idea that they control the information space and therefore it’s very hard for Chinese media to kind of peek through that, to battle this discourse of hegemony, and to have the right to speak in the international system, something that Chinese state officials describe as discourse power. So that’s something that’s just kind of as a side note.
When I look at this targeting, I see that there are two audiences. That is something that’s very typical for Chinese soft power more broadly. I see very much a domestic component there. As I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of these very nationalistic statements, especially when it comes to challenging Western narratives and NATO and critiquing the U.S. and its own, again, kind of real and perceived failure, that’s something that I think really speaks to domestic publics. And we do see significant kind of a spark in nationalism, especially online nationalism, in China over the past years. It’s a big phenomenon that’s worth looking into – basically, Chinese public pushing sometimes the party to be even more uncompromising in its international foreign policy.
So in that context, I see that much of this messaging, again, it gets translated to Chinese and it gets disseminated widely in China. When it comes to external audiences, I don’t think that these officials are aiming to convince Western politicians or Western publics to kind of align with them, right – it seems to be very counterproductive. If anything, this assertive messaging seems to be putting off, right, potential audiences in the West. But I do think that some of these messages resonate, again, in the Global South. That’s a very broad category, I don’t want to generalize, but I focus in my research on Africa, and we do see that some of these accounts – not just related to this war, but a lot of these social media accounts of Chinese ambassadors, on Twitter in particular – they often invoke the U.S., kind of this battling of U.S. narratives, pushing against the U.S. in their diplomacy vis-à-vis Africa.
And oftentimes it has nothing to do with U.S. and Africa. It’s more about kind of U.S. globally or U.S. democracy or all kinds of other issues. They don’t really talk specifically about Africa or about African issues. They talk about the U.S. internationally and try to convey this message of a challenger kind of pushing back on U.S., again, hegemony or overpowering dominance in the international system. And we see the same thing here this war. I think Bret mentioned a number of examples where the tweets are being kind of retweeted and shared by ambassadors and other officials around the world, especially in more vulnerable regions. I think that that’s something that’s a trend that’s really important to study further and to watch further.
As far as vaccination, it’s interesting that you use this kind of medical term – about vaccination, actually, some Chinese officials use the same term of vaccinating themselves against Western influence. So they do use that kind of medical vocabulary as well. But the idea of how to be less vulnerable, I think a lot of it’s – it’s a very complex question to answer, but a lot of it comes down to media literacy and information and pushing out information that’s credible and balanced in your own media, right. I think that’s the best way to kind of challenge against this disinformation tactics.
But also it’s transparency. I think what Bret mentioned earlier was really important, this notion that some Chinese media, they kind of position themselves so they infuse their messaging into other media, right, it’s not just Chinese media. They either have adverts or they position their content in a way that’s almost invisible, it’s not clear that it’s coming from China. And I think that push for transparency is really significant, highlighting that it is coming from China or Russia, that it’s not coming from your own outlets. And that’s something that I’ve seen kind of in some ways mishandled in some cases. So thank you.
MR SCHAFER: I’ll just add a few points on top of that. I think the point about the influence in the Global South is really significant. I mean, when we look at Russian state media sources and where they have performed best, it’s RT Arabic and it’s RT en Español. Since we started monitoring two or three years ago, every single day on Twitter, RT en Español is the number-one most retweeted, most liked Russian state media account. On Facebook, RT en Español’s page there is among the most followed Spanish language media pages in the world. It significantly outperforms Voice of America’s Spanish language outlet. It’s about on par with BBC Mundo. And again, RT Arabic has significant reach both on Facebook and Twitter.
So I think there’s sometimes a tendency to under – sort of research and to have a sort of myopic focus on the transatlantic community and how Russian and Chinese messaging is performing there. And as Maria mentioned, I think a lot of the messages are really specifically tailored and targeted to audiences outside of Europe and the U.S.
On the question of whether or not we can trust some of those social media metrics, China’s metrics are clearly inflated. If you look at Chinese follower numbers on Facebook, as I mentioned, if you aggregate all of Chinese state media sources and pages there, there’s over a billion followers. But when you look at their interactions, they are not commensurate with that number of followers, not even close. So in some cases where you see Chinese state media pages have huge numbers of followers, their interaction numbers just don’t make sense. So that suggests to me that a lot of those followers are not authentic and not legitimate.
What we have also noted on Twitter is Chinese diplomats even will engage with clearly fake accounts. Russian diplomats just don’t do that. I think some of that may they’ve been on the platform longer, they’re a little bit more sophisticated with how they use it, but we’ve seen Chinese diplomats retweet, I mean, accounts that are just clearly, clearly fake and that have since been suspended.
On the question of the bioweapons conspiracy and how it has kind of taken on a life of its own in Western capitals as well, I’ve been in this job fulltime five years, and I think I’ve dealt with at least four or five different bioweapons conspiracies in that time, from the Lugar Lab in Georgia, then of course coronavirus bioweapons conspiracies with Fort Detrick. And so it’s almost like a Hollywood franchise where each new sequel has the same villain, but it’s repackaged slightly differently to kind of fit within the times and to reach a new audience. So this time around, of course, they connected it to George Soros, to Hunter Biden. So that resonated in parts of Europe, it clearly resonated with parts of the right in the U.S. So it’s – again, it’s just making a conspiracy theory that’s been around for decades a little bit more modern, a little bit more familiar, and for many audiences, the first time they’ve encountered it.
So I think that’s why we saw significant traction around that conspiracy theory, in Western capitals as well. And the final point about vulnerabilities in audiences – I don’t think at this point we can actually say that audiences in more mature information environments are any less vulnerable to some degree to Chinese and Russian disinformation. I mean, we’ve seen the effect that some of it’s had in the U.S., certainly in Europe. So I think clearly it’s a greater challenge in environments where Chinese or Russian state media sources have an outsized influence, just because there’s not as much competition. But we’ve seen at least on the edges of society that they can be very effective, even in the most sort of mature information environments.
QUESTION: Excellent. Thank you both.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’ll now call on Pearl Matibe from Power FM South Africa. Pearl.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for this opportunity. Bret, I’ve been listening very intently to what you have been sharing. And Maria, dobra utra. I’ve also been listening to you and everything that you’re sharing. So thank you very much, and I’ll say spasiba as well for that.
I’d like to draw your guys’ attention to Africa. African countries, even Southern African countries where Russia has had, let’s just say, a very good relationship with some of those countries, and then again you’ve got people of African descent across the world, who are not – who now either lived in Ukraine, moved from – were fleeing from Ukraine. We have thousands of Africans who live in Russia, who have Russia as their home, and Russia has had this long relationship with the continent well before the Russian Federation, even back through the Cold War.
It’s also not the first time that we’ve heard about the way China has been engaging on social media. I remember back during the Trump administration, round about the 2020 timeframe, we were hearing about China’s military-civil fusion strategy – in other words, they were using their military elements or institutions to perform social media attacks, or using Russian-style tactics.
So what I’m wondering now is: Is this instance – and maybe we’re replicating – I think it was because they were being blamed for having originated the coronavirus, and so there was some pushback on that on social media, including with the ministry of foreign affairs account, which you just mentioned Zhao Lijian’s account.
So my question now is: Are they still using the military in civilian institutions to operate their social media accounts, and having all these other embassies retweet these accounts? And are you seeing any increased trends by maybe embassies or Russian elements in Africa retweeting those, or have you only been focusing on Europe and other parts of the region – and other parts of the world?
I’m interested to understand, is there a gap here in terms of how Africa is interacting? Because there is some pushback from big portions of Africa who are not – who may be still pro-Russia, may be still pro-China. Both countries enjoy a brotherly relationship with both of these two countries.
What I also did not hear from both of you – and I really appreciate if you could speak a little bit about this – have you at all looked at, the same way that you’ve looked at China and Russia, have you examined how the United States is performing on social media with the same factors and parameters that you examined China and Russia? Have you looked at how Ukraine is doing that?
So I’d like to understand: What is the balance here? Have you at all examined Ukraine, have you at all examined NATO countries, have you at all examined U.S. countries to understand how they’re performing, so that we can have a balanced view here as to how China and Russia is performing as opposed to only looking at one part of the world? And if not, that’s fine; I just want to understand where any gaps might lie here. Thanks very much.
MS REPNIKOVA: Bret, if you’ve looked at these countries, maybe you want to start us off.
MR SCHAFER: Yeah, I’ll start with the sort of last part of your question, and the short answer is no, we haven’t. And it is a bit of a research gap that we have. In some of our more recent dashboards that we’ve set up, so before the German elections in 2021 and the recent French elections, and we’ll do it for the U.S. elections in 2022, we are starting to monitor domestic accounts in those countries to see where the foreign narratives sort of intersect or diverge from what’s happening in domestic ecosystems.
But we have not looked systematically at, for example, the sort of U.S. Department of State messaging apparatus along with sort of U.S. Government-funded media outlets and how they’re performing globally. So we don’t have that great baseline to compare it to. So it is just sort of a bit of a blind spot in what we do.
QUESTION: Yes, Bret, I appreciate that. And I just want to point out real quick, part of the reason why I brought that up is because I understand and I know that from pan-Africanists type audiences, the information that you’ve shared, there may be some pushback in that they may say, well, there’s nothing being said about the U.S., or why is it only about China and Russia.
MR SCHAFER: Yeah. I mean, the short answer is bandwidth and capacity. I have a team of three, so we would love to monitor everything, but we’re just a little limited.
QUESTION: Yeah. I perfectly understand.
MR SCHAFER: But I completely – I agree. And we try in some of the research we do to at least provide a sampling control group so we have something to compare it to, and we have that on our dashboard. We have a bit of a global media control group. But it doesn’t systematically track the entirety of a network in the same way that we can do with Russia and China.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR SCHAFER: One other note before I turn it over to Maria, just with the sort of South Africa connection – and this is maybe just an aside of how significant both Russia and China’s embassy accounts but also consulate accounts are in South Africa – the Russian embassy in South Africa has long been one of their sort of more aggressive, confrontational embassies along with the Russian embassy in the UK. We don’t know why that is; it’s just – it is. And at least two or three of the more sort of high-profile wolf warrior-style diplomats from China are in South Africa. So the consul-general I think in Durban, maybe Cape Town but definitely Durban, they have very high-profile accounts if you look at their followers, their engagement. So that’s just an aside because I don’t know what to make of it.
QUESTION: Yes, I appreciate – I appreciate that very much. And I noticed on your list that you shared on your – one of your PowerPoints that Zimbabwe was one of them, and I certainly understand the reason for that. So yeah, I mean, I really understand what you’re doing. I’m just putting it out there that there’s going to be a section of our audiences who are – who will push back on this information and, obviously, for obvious reasons. Thanks very much.
MS REPNIKOVA: Just to add very briefly to this question on the U.S., I haven’t looked at the comparison in the context of Ukraine, but I am carrying out a project currently with one of my graduate students looking at U.S. and China competition or parallel kind of digital diplomacy practices in Africa. We’re focusing on Kenya and South Africa in our study. And what we found, which I found interesting, was that in the U.S. accounts there’s been a lot less direct attacks against China or kind of direct challenges of China when it comes to this Twitter diplomacy, but more so kind of positioning of the U.S. benefits that it offers and direct appeal to local publics; whereas in the Chinese accounts we see a lot more invoking of the U.S., like what the U.S. is doing wrong or responding to U.S. critiques in other contexts.
So even though the U.S. Government tends to be very critical of China and Africa in many forums, but when it comes to digital diplomacy of specific embassies, we have found that there has been less invocation or mention of China in those accounts than on the other side when it comes to Chinese accounts often mentioning or bringing up the United States. So that’s something that I found to be interesting as a distinction between how they operate. I don’t know if that speaks to the Ukraine context as well, but that’s something that I’ve been looking at more kind of longer term, a couple of years of data, comparing the U.S. and China.
And then just very briefly on Russia and China, you mentioned kind of these different appeals and the long legacies of Russia’s Soviet and pre-Soviet presence. I didn’t spend time in South Africa, but I’ve done my research in Ethiopia on these issues, and I did find a very important legacy of the Soviet and pre-Soviet era, but especially of the Soviet era, and the appeal of kind of nostalgia that a lot of alumni who studied in the Soviet Union but also the appeal of Putin himself. Like, I’ve heard many times over and over how Putin is this great challenger and kind of an admirable figure, which is something that may surprise some in the West, but that was very common in my experience, and I have a Russian background myself so sometimes that was the start of conversation about Putin and his kind of might and what he represents, but also the history of this relationship – how significant it was that Russia, Soviet Union, helped Ethiopia, and it’s something that they often brought up and don’t forget and take it as a very important kind of part of their friendship.
And recently I also noticed signs of Russian embassy accounts as using or at least attempting to kind of amplify the idea that there is global support for them or some kind of legitimation outside of, say, China by looking at Africa, in particular Ethiopia. We saw a tweet coming out of a long line of people lining up outside of Russian embassy and the tweet was saying that Russian embassy or Russia is not taking in any volunteers to fight in this war, but it’s very grateful for the support of the Ethiopian people. And it’s not clear whether this was a true desire to fight in this war or whether they were just lining up for another reason, but that was the tweet that was pushed out from the Russian embassy.
So I think there’s a lot happening there, and Russia of course is re-engaging in many ways across the African continent, in some ways maybe competing with China, in some ways echoing China’s narratives. I don’t think what they’re offering is the same thing, so there’s a lot to study there in terms of their comparative strategies, ambitions, and effects, implications. But thank you so much for these really important questions.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: We have time for one last question, so I’ll call on Robert Papa from Tema TV, Albania, if you’d like to ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, do you hear me? How about the Russian and China propaganda effect in the Western Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, Albania? I can go down to Greece because they have connections with Russia. Do you have any data about that?
MS REPNIKOVA: I haven’t looked at that region, so maybe, Bret, if you do, please.
MR SCHAFER: Limited, and we’re – but we are trying to set up a project specifically to look at the Western Balkans. What I can say is the Russian embassy Facebook page in Greece has been their best performing Facebook page over the last – don’t sort of quote me on this, but I think a month, two months. It’s consistently been at the top of their embassy accounts when we look at Facebook.
I think you’ve clearly seen more pro-Kremlin narratives that find their way into outlets there as well. I don’t know, again, because I haven’t done a ton of in-depth research to the extent to which some of those have direct connections back to Kremlin-affiliated actors; I’m not sure about that. But the tone of many of the outputs that we have tracked about Ukraine in the Western Balkans have been more pro-Russian than what we’ve seen in sort of Western Europe and in the U.S.
In terms of specific other embassy accounts or diplomatic accounts from China or Russia, I don’t have off the top of my head any great anecdotal example of how well they’re performing there. Obviously, there’s long been sympathies between Russia and Serbia, and we saw that around the anniversary of NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia that there was a significant push, which there always is from Russia but this year as well from China, to highlight that as a whataboutist argument to try to distract from Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. We saw NATO actually during that one-week period that was the anniversary – NATO I think was the second or third most used hashtag and topic from Chinese diplomats.
So they’re – Serbia is definitely a place where they’ve found a pretty, pretty comfortable home and a pretty broad audience, but I haven’t done enough specific research into the region to give you any more than that, unfortunately.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: With that, I don’t see any other questions submitted, so we will conclude today’s briefing. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank our briefers for speaking to the foreign press today. Thank you and good morning.
MR SCHAFER: Thank you.
MS REPNIKOVA: Thank you.