According to official infection figures, China’s battle with the novel coronavirus appears to be slowing, though there is skepticism on the reliability of those numbers. But the struggle to control the global narrative is just beginning. A key battlefield in that campaign will be the platforms operated by America’s still-dominant Internet companies.
Our research has demonstrated how Chinese state media use Facebook to shape the discourse on the coronavirus. One example is the case of late whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to report the existence of the novel disease and was forced by Chinese police to sign a letter stating that he’d made “false comments.” Li died of covid-19 on Feb. 7, resulting in significant public anger. Forced to strike a delicate balance between covering his story and casting the Chinese government in a positive light, Chinese state media eliminated all mention of the whistleblower controversy and his detention, instead framing him as a hero of the party.
To promote such revisionist histories, these outlets are running ads on U.S. tech platforms — platforms that themselves are blocked inside of China. Running ads on Western platforms targeted at non-Chinese audiences is a strategy China has leveraged for some time. Promoted articles allow state media to target new audiences and push out their version of events, including on controversies in which they have a vested interest in positive spin. For example, YouTube allowed Chinese state media to run ads discrediting the Hong Kong protesters in 2019.
Now, in the midst of the messaging war over the coronavirus, several Chinese state media launched a new Facebook ad offensive. Talking points include emphasizing the Chinese government’s alleged transparency in its pandemic response and promoting the idea that Beijing’s sharing of covid-19 information was helping the world battle the pandemic. Chinese state media have also covered coronavirus-related protests in the United States, while avoiding mention of police clashes in China on their English-language social media presence.
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube) already search for and disable networks of fake accounts run by foreign government-aligned organizations. While such efforts can deal a significant blow to the kinds of activity we saw from Russia in 2016, China’s behavior has demonstrated that the disinformation game is broader than fake social media accounts. U.S. platforms should take steps to avoid being complicit in Beijing’s state-driven propaganda.
First, these platforms should not allow paid political advertisements from media outlets registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Twitter has banned all state media ads after Chinese state media ads against the Hong Kong protesters on Twitter caused a backlash. Facebook and YouTube still allow, and financially benefit from, Chinese state media ads on their platforms, even though these outlets are registered under FARA. This means the U.S. government must continue to be aggressive about rooting out state media and mandating foreign agents register.
Second, platforms should disable the capability for official blue-checked diplomatic or state media accounts to block other accounts. For example, various journalists and academics have reported being blocked by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Twitter. Critics should be able to read and respond to content shared by state figures, to provide context for other social media users. This policy should apply across all governments and perhaps extend to international organizations such as the World Health Organization as well.
Finally, tech platforms should consider banning state media and government-representative accounts run by countries that block their own citizens from accessing these platforms. Such a move could be costly in financial terms: While many U.S. tech platforms are blocked from being visible to Chinese citizens, Chinese companies can still buy advertisements for global consumers. Up to 10 percent of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from China. Large Chinese companies with unclear ties to the government may stop advertising on Facebook to protest the policy. But allowing state media to take advantage of freedom of expression to push Beijing’s narratives to the world, while not allowing its own citizens to see criticism or counter-narratives, is the height of hypocrisy.
This move would do little to abate escalating U.S.-China tensions, which have included China’s recent move to expel several U.S. journalists. But currently, social media companies are allowing themselves to be used as a mouthpiece for Beijing. If countries do not want to allow their citizens to engage freely online, they should not get the benefit of using platforms committed to free expression for the distribution of mis- and disinformation.