The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Social media shouldn’t let China do Russia’s dirty work

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping greet each other during their meeting on the sidelines of a summit in Brasilia on Nov. 13, 2019. (Sputnik/Ramil Sitdikov/Kremlin) (Sputnik Photo Agency/Via Reuters)
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U.S. social media sites’ steps to ban Russian state media might have stymied President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to seed propaganda abroad — that is, if the Kremlin hadn’t found someone else to do the job for it.

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has portrayed itself as a neutral party to the conflict and possibly even an honest broker in resolving it. This performance has always been unconvincing, but now Beijing has shown its hand: President Xi Jinping’s regime has committed itself to sowing disinformation on Moscow’s behalf. A foreign ministry spokesman made that clear from the podium last week when he adopted a baseless Russian talking point about Ukraine developing biological weapons with the U.S. government’s help.

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The Post reports that China’s government-controlled outlets have been hawking similarly ludicrous narratives far and wide, including on sites such as Facebook and YouTube. But at least when it comes to these platforms, there’s a way to stop the spread.

Social media sites chose fairly early on in the war to side against the aggressor and made an impact by preventing RT, Sputnik and their cohorts from disseminating lies. The sites didn’t make this decision according to any broader principle about how to treat state-controlled media on their platforms. Yet China’s insistence on telling the more than 1 billion followers its channels command on Facebook that neo-Nazis running Ukraine bombed a children’s hospital, or that NATO is to blame for the fighting, offers an opportunity for just this sort of bright-line rule.

What that rule ought to be is straightforward: If an authoritarian nation bars a social network from operating on its territory, as China and now Russia both do for most platforms, the social network should bar that nation’s state-run media from its turf, too. The alternative is to allow these oppressive regimes to speak as loudly as they want, wherever they want, even as they prevent their citizens at home from hearing any voices but theirs.

That a policy like this one would further impede Russian propaganda is no coincidence: One authoritarian state with an iron grip over information’s flow has every reason to aid another in achieving the same goal. By imposing clear rules for government outlets that result in the removal of Chinese channels, social media sites would land another blow in service of Ukraine. But they’d also land a blow against authoritarianism everywhere.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).