The New York Times and ProPublica uncovered this government influence operation in an investigation published this week that catalogues more than 3,000 unique videos creeping across U.S. sites such as YouTube and Twitter. These videos don’t bear any designation to show they’re official propaganda, but the eerie echoes in language are obvious: For example, “You’re speaking total nonsense,” and close variations of that expression figure in more than 600 clips — a rebuttal to foreign corporations such as H&M and officials such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, whose condemnations appear to have set off this disinformation salvo.
It’s easy from a faraway vantage point to view the campaign as fumbling and likely fruitless. Yet in China, officials have swayed civilian opinion through a digital version of brute force: vast and rapid content production, followed by vast and rapid promotion on domestic channels. Now, the regime has pushed beyond its borders to post the clips on YouTube, amplify them on Twitter through a network of connected accounts, and spread them further with the help of Chinese officials, state-run media and other nationalist figures with hefty followings. The lack of labeling, feigned spontaneity and sheer volume of one-of-a-kind pieces of content also challenge platforms rooting out manipulation — YouTube has said the clips don’t violate its community guidelines.
China does its best to keep expatriates and students enmeshed in its censorship apparatus even when they are living abroad through controlled social media services like WeChat. Yet this strategy aims to keep the blindfold even on those who find their way to sites with a freer hand toward expression. There is no mistaking the message the videos are trying to send. Just look at 74-year-old Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur activist living in exile here. Her family members appear in several of the clips, with granddaughters she hasn’t seen since they were babies telling her, “I hope you won’t be fooled again by those bad people overseas.” This is hostage-taking.
The recently unearthed operation reveals China’s continued intention to exploit the openness of the United States, its allies and the technology companies their citizens rely on to spread false and regime-friendly political narratives — even as the Great Firewall shuts the rest of the world out for fear that true and critical narratives could make their way in.