Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine cratered last month after Russian state news channels were blocked in Europe and restricted globally. But in recent weeks, China has emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation, researchers say, portraying Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors and sharing false claims about neo-Nazi control of the Ukrainian government.
With over a billion followers on Facebook alone, China’s state-controlled channels offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a powerful megaphone for shaping global understanding of the war — often called a “special operation” in line with Kremlin rhetoric. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, researchers say, Chinese channels have touted the false claim that the United States runs bioweapons labs in Ukraine, have asserted that Ukrainian neo-Nazis bombed a children’s hospital which was in fact bombed by Russian troops, and have suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was being manipulated by U.S. billionaire George Soros.
Chinese channels also have given airtime and amplification to high-ranking Russian government officials and to presenters from Russian government channels whose shows have been restricted or blocked. Last month, after a host on Sputnik, the Russian state news outlet, posted a video on his personal YouTube channel discussing how neo-Nazis were on the rise in Ukraine, the clip was tweeted by Frontline, a Chinese government outlet.
“With governments and tech platforms moving to censor or limit the spread of Russian propaganda, pro-Kremlin talking points are now being laundered through influencers and proxies, including Chinese officials and state media outlets that obviously do not face the same restrictions that have been placed on Russian state media outlets,” said Bret Schafer, senior fellow and head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative housed at the U.S. German Marshall Fund that tracks Chinese and Russian state media. “This has allowed the Kremlin to effectively skirt bans meant to limit the spread of Russian propaganda.”
Putin’s success in seeding some of these misleading narratives through proxies and allies is casting doubt on the ability of Western governments and the tech giants to effectively rein in the most pernicious forms of authoritarian propaganda. With China’s help, experts say, Russia also is regaining its ability to cloud the narrative around Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.
“While the world’s eyes are still on Ukraine, and the journalists are there, it’s going to be hard for the Russian government to make great progress. But they can make progress on the edges,” said Kate Starbird, an associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. “And in the long run, if the public is confused enough about what happened, then we might not give our leadership a clear message to take action.”
Since the war’s early days, when the European Commission blocked Russian state channels and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook restricted their reach, Russia has raced to create workarounds. Journalists have uncovered a coordinated campaign to pay TikTok influencers to push pro-Kremlin views, while researchers from the data science company Trementum Analytics have documented pro-Russia trolls spamming YouTube videos about Ukraine with pro-Russian comments.
The Russian government also has used its embassies to push out misinformation to tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the messaging app Telegram. According to the Israeli disinformation research group FakeReporter, Russian embassies have created at least 65 new Telegram channels since the war began. Twitter stopped recommending these accounts this week.
Fox News and other right-leaning American outlets also have picked up Russia’s talking points — notably when Fox host Tucker Carlson last month promoted to his prime time audience the baseless claim that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with the assistance of the U.S. government. According to disinformation researchers and the fact-checking group PolitiFact, that claim, which has been circulating for years, is a misleading reference to a public health research partnership between the United States and Ukraine; the White House has called it “preposterous.”
Last week, the New York Post wrote an article tying the discredited biolab claim to President Biden’s son Hunter, claiming that the younger Biden had helped secure funds for a start-up that worked on the research biolabs in Ukraine. The Washington Post has reported that Hunter Biden “was not part of a decision" to invest in the start-up.
Meanwhile, highly active online communities, such as anti-vaccine activists and adherents of the radicalized movement QAnon, have seized on the biolab claim and other Russian narratives. An early, prolific spreader of the theory, according to the Anti-Defamation League, was a Virginia man with ties to QAnon.
China is, by far, the Kremlin’s biggest promoter, however. The top four Chinese outlets — CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News and T-House — command a massive audience with a combined follower count on Facebook of 283 million, according to research from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). All told, Chinese outlets on Facebook have over 1 billion followers, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy — far more than the roughly 85 million total followers for Russia’s main channels.
Asked how Facebook was addressing China’s emergence as a vector for Russian propaganda, Facebook shared several examples of fact checks applied to misleading pro-Russian content from Chinese state media. The company did not respond to questions about whether it has restricted Chinese state media accounts or has plans to do so.
Twitter spokeswoman Madeline Broas said the company had placed some limits on Chinese state media for several years, and that — beginning last Friday — it had begun putting highly-visible labels on any tweet that contained a link to Chinese state media. (Previously, such labels were shown only to people who searched for the account.)
YouTube declined to answer questions about Chinese state media. Spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said the company does fact-check misinformation and that it prohibits content that minimizes, trivializes, or denies the existence of well-documented, violent historical events.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
China and Russia have long been allies, extending back to the Cold War, and view their alliance as a bulwark against Western power. The two countries strengthened their bond ahead of the Ukraine invasion, issuing a joint statement on Feb. 4 describing their relationship as a “no limits” friendship.
Russia has refused to acknowledge the invasion, referring to its actions in Ukraine as a “special operation.” Chinese state media immediately adopted that term, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s tracker, with Chinese accounts using it 180 times between Feb. 24 and March 12. The term “invasion” was mentioned 145 times, but more than the third were references to the U.S. invasion of Iraq — an attempt to equate Russian and American military actions.
Chinese media also began to take up neo-Nazi storylines, according to ASD. Chinese diplomats and state media have tweeted about Nazis more than 140 times since the start of the war, according to the tracker. In the year preceding the war, Chinese state- affiliated accounts tracked by the group tweeted about Nazis only twice. The Azov Battalion, a group partially made up of anti-Russian nationalists and neo-Nazis, has been part of Ukraine’s military since 2014. But experts say the controversial battalion does not have major influence in the country whose president, Zelensky, is Jewish.
Lately, China has focused more attention on blaming NATO for the conflict, researchers say. A recent Facebook post from T-House, a millennial-focused outlet, compared Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO to Hitler’s attempt to conquer Ukraine, according to research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “The moves by the US-led #NATO have pushed the #Russia-Ukraine tension to the breaking point,” said a recent tweet by China’s ambassador to the Asia-Pacific region.
In late March, NATO was the tenth most used key phrase in Chinese tweets, according to the ASD tracker. Meanwhile, China’s consul general in Belfast recently tweeted a false claim from Russian state media that Zelensky is hiding in Poland, a NATO member.
China also is giving a boost to Russian presenters whose audiences appear to have been limited by Western bans. The personal talk show for U.K. presenter George Galloway, host of the “Mother of All Talk Shows” on Sputnik, been shared numerous times by several large Chinese outlets such as Global Times. Currently, the Sputnik website that hosted Galloway’s show appeared to be blocked in the United Kingdom, according to ASD. But his personal YouTube channel, which does not make visible references to his Sputnik backing, continues to stream it.
Galloway did not respond to a request for comment. In a tweet on Wednesday, Galloway tweeted in response to Twitter’s decision to label his account “Russian state media,” saying, “Dear @TwitterSupport I am not “Russian State Affiliated media”. I work for NO #Russian media. I have 400,000 followers. I’m the leader of a British political party and spent nearly 30 years in the British parliament. If you do not remove this designation I will take legal action.”
Experts disagree about how the tech companies should police China and other Russian proxies.
The tech companies have cast their crackdowns on Russian media as drastic actions taken under extraordinary circumstances; they largely do not want to impose blanket bans on state outlets. Experts also have noted that if state outlets are banned for disinformation, the tech companies would face increasing pressure to ban nonstate channels that spread misinformation, such as Fox News.
Instead, the tech companies more recently have opted for transparency, such as fact-checking and labeling. In 2018, YouTube began labeling state media outlets. Twitter did so in 2020, as did Facebook.
But labeling is premised on the idea that informed users will make wise decisions about whether to trust content, and that has had mixed results.
In 2020, George Washington University researchers studying the impact of YouTube labels on content from RT found that they were effective at making people more aware of misinformation, but only when the labels were prominently displayed. A separate study from the Election Integrity Partnership, a consortium of prominent disinformation researchers, found that labeling was inconsistent and that tech platforms failed to prominently show the labels in search results.
Since the Ukraine war began, Twitter has added more prominent labels, saying the move has reduced the reach of Russian propaganda by 30 percent. But some advocates said transparency measures are insufficient in the face of China’s global disinformation campaign, and called on the tech giants to do more.
“When there is clear disinformation targeted at foreign populations, the tech companies have a perfectly legitimate moral case for limiting or removing that propaganda,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, which has researched Chinese state media.
Not all companies have embraced the same level of transparency. TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is Chinese-owned, started its first pilot project to label a few dozen Russian state outlets last month, and the company has plans to start labeling Chinese outlets. Researchers say state propaganda probably has a massive presence on its service — but it is difficult to detect with such limited labels and without providing researchers the ability to review the platform’s data. The company says it is still developing a state media policy.
Rather than adopting ad hoc policies during an emergency like the Ukraine war, platforms should have distinguished long ago between media outlets run by authoritarian governments and outlets, such as PBS or the BBC, that receive support from democratic governments, said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which is a member of the Election Integrity Partnership.
Stamos, who once was Facebook’s chief security officer, argued that social media companies should not give a megaphone to state media outlets from countries, such as China, where free speech is suppressed. Russia would now also fall into that category, he said.
“This is the time," Stamos said, “for the tech platforms to finally create rules about state media run by authoritarian governments.”