Chinese state propaganda is trying to shift the blame for the pandemic away from China and paint the country as a responsible global leader, according to Somerville, Massachusetts–based cybersecurity company Recorded Future.
“China’s larger strategic goals, under which all of this rolls up, are to convince the world and make the world feel comfortable in China’s ascendancy,” Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future, told BuzzFeed News.
To do that, Moriuchi said the country's state-run, English-language media has been pushing narratives of Western incompetence alongside stories on the Chinese government's humanitarian efforts on their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.
The cybersecurity company has been tracking China’s overt propaganda arms — primarily news outlets that don’t hide their affiliation with the state — for over two years.
News about COVID-19 first made an appearance on state media on Jan. 9, the same day the World Health Organization announced that it was a new virus, and at first focused on updates on the progression of the outbreak. Then, on Feb. 11, as the virus began its spread to Western countries, the accounts began to shift blame for the pandemic away from China.
“What feeds into that strategy and makes it more interesting is that this is the case when the Chinese government can execute a binary comparison,” Moriuchi said. “They can point to metrics, specific numbers, the duration of the outbreak.”
An additional study from nonprofit, Toronto-based research organization Citizen Lab has shown that the Chinese government has actively censored terms related to the virus on domestic social media and any references to Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan Central Hospital doctor who sounded the alarm on the virus before dying from COVID-19.
Recorded Future found that once Dr. Li’s death became impossible to ignore within the country, the propaganda channels sought to change the narrative.
“What they’ve chosen to do is reframe his role as a hero,” Moriuchi said. “Someone who attempted to bang the drum at the local level.”
Moriuchi said the shift in Chinese narratives, especially painting the country as a leader in coronavirus response, has been fairly effective. There have been plenty of stories of Chinese aid being sent to Western countries suffering outbreaks. What makes the strategy effective is the slow trickle of pro-China news, Moriuchi said, which does not directly say the country’s response is superior — but attempts to show it.
“It’s very rare for a Chinese [state media] account to be very explicit in the comment they’re trying to make,” she said. “In a way, Chinese messaging is more insidious because it’s a trickle.”
State media in countries like Iran and Russia have also picked up Chinese talking points, blaming the West or, in a narrative spread by the country's ambassadors and diplomatic staff, falsely claiming that the virus came from the US.
Moriuchi warned against buying into state media narratives.
“That little verified tick — no matter which social platform you use — doesn’t mean that the information you’re getting is useful,” Moriuchi said.