Chinese State Media Is Pushing Pro-Russian Misinformation Worldwide

Ad buys show a pattern of targeting cheaper markets.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
The Russian and Chinese presidents pose for a photo.
The Russian and Chinese presidents pose for a photo.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose before a family photo session at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool via Getty Images

Beijing has spoken of its neutrality and desire for peace in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine—but Chinese state-affiliated media outlets have kept on spreading Kremlin propaganda, even as European Union countries and social media platforms have moved to ban Russian state media due to misinformation.

According to analysis conducted by CNN, almost half of the most shared posts on Weibo from 14 Chinese state media outlets are strongly pro-Russia. Research by Maria Repnikova and Wendy Zhou shows that social media opinion on Chinese sites leans the same way. But that’s not enough for Beijing. Chinese state media is actively working—and paying—to spread pro-Russia misinformation on Western social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

The current line China is trying to push onto Western social media platforms is a well-developed lie about U.S. bioweapon experiments in Ukraine. This is a propaganda line well developed in Russian media—but Beijing isn’t promoting it to help Moscow as much as it is to just smear the West. Since early 2020, China has promoted claims that COVID-19 really originated outside of China and created a fantasy story of U.S. military experimentation at Fort Detrick that created the virus. This claim, heavily normalized in China, is a convenient distraction from China’s own failings in allowing the virus to spread in Wuhan. As omicron challenges China’s containment system, blaming the West is a useful distraction—but it’s also become a routine exercise for Chinese media.

Beijing has spoken of its neutrality and desire for peace in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine—but Chinese state-affiliated media outlets have kept on spreading Kremlin propaganda, even as European Union countries and social media platforms have moved to ban Russian state media due to misinformation.

According to analysis conducted by CNN, almost half of the most shared posts on Weibo from 14 Chinese state media outlets are strongly pro-Russia. Research by Maria Repnikova and Wendy Zhou shows that social media opinion on Chinese sites leans the same way. But that’s not enough for Beijing. Chinese state media is actively working—and paying—to spread pro-Russia misinformation on Western social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

The current line China is trying to push onto Western social media platforms is a well-developed lie about U.S. bioweapon experiments in Ukraine. This is a propaganda line well developed in Russian media—but Beijing isn’t promoting it to help Moscow as much as it is to just smear the West. Since early 2020, China has promoted claims that COVID-19 really originated outside of China and created a fantasy story of U.S. military experimentation at Fort Detrick that created the virus. This claim, heavily normalized in China, is a convenient distraction from China’s own failings in allowing the virus to spread in Wuhan. As omicron challenges China’s containment system, blaming the West is a useful distraction—but it’s also become a routine exercise for Chinese media.

One of the most notable outlets involved in foreign propaganda is CGTN, an English-language cable TV news service owned by Chinese state media China Central Television (CCTV), under the control of the Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department. Although some recent reports have discussed Russian bombings, CGTN has generally backed Russian propaganda by calling the invasion “special military action” and directly publishing quotes from Sputnik and other Russian sites, such as “Putin says Russia has no ill intentions towards its neighbours.”

Earlier this month, CGTN published an interview with French reporter Anne-Laure Bonnel, a noted propagandist on behalf of Russia, in which she falsely claimed that the Ukrainian government had been nonstop bombing its own citizens since 2014, killing 13,000 civilians. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the majority of the victims have been members of Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian armed groups.

As of March 17, CGTN had around 13.3 million followers on its official Twitter account, 2.4 million followers on its official Instagram account, and 117.8 million followers on its official Facebook page.

Despite having millions of followers, CGTN’s Twitter account has very limited reach: When I checked on March 17, its last 20 tweets had received a total of just 428 likes and 192 retweets. However, its Facebook page has better engagement—perhaps because Twitter banned advertising from state-controlled news media entities in 2019 but Facebook still allows it.

According to the Facebook ads library, CGTV has placed around 280 advertisements on Facebook, 13 in March so far (from March 1 to March 17). One recent ad running from March 9 to March 10 featured key quotes from Chinese President Xi Jinping on the current situation in Ukraine. It obtained around 900,000 impressions at a cost of less than $100. Most of the ads are similarly cheap, costing only a few hundred dollars or less. The ads were mostly shown in Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Other state-run medias like China Daily, People’s Daily, and the Global Times have been using similar strategies to spread propaganda on Facebook. They all have more Facebook followers than Western media outlets like the BBC, CNN, the New York Times—and use their presence to spread China’s messaging.

For instance, from March 1 to March 2, the Global Times ran an ad promoting former chief editor Hu Xijin’s comment, saying: “The U.S. has adopted an aggressive policy toward both China and Russia, which has driven global divisions.” This ad, which cost somewhere between $200 and $299, reached around 500,000 impressions, targeting Facebook users in Bangladesh.

The countries chosen may depend more on cheapness than on geopolitical importance. Facebook ad costs depend completely on an auction model. Potential advertisers set their prices to bid for the execution of a Facebook ads campaign, which means, the price is lower in regions where there is less competition among Facebook advertisers. According to data released by ADCostly, average Facebook ad costs in India and Pakistan are much lower than costs in developed countries like the United States, South Korea, and Australia. That means CGTN can reach a large viewership at a relatively cheap price, and large viewership brings more engagement, such as likes and comments, which makes it more likely for Facebook to promote such content organically. It also means higher numbers to present to bosses who aren’t discriminatory about where such clicks come from.

It is standard operating procedure for these accounts to purchase Facebook ads. Some of the ads work as “click bait,” promoting cute animal photos, shots of attractive women, delicious food, or pictures of China’s landscapes and cultural events in the hope of using attractive visuals to get followers and viewership. But others are dedicated to promoting China’s image—or promoting the official Chinese line on issues like Russia.

When accused of purchasing fake followers in 2016, the Global Times responded by saying then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also had fake Facebook followers, claiming that Chinese media outlets had figured out what foreign netizens liked to see.

China is generally keen to promote its narratives on Western social media platforms. Last year, Beijing hired Vippi Media, a U.S. public relations firm, to help with the 2022 Winter Olympics’ marketing campaign on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch. Twitter removed hundreds of fake accounts and bots after the New York Times published an investigation relating to China’s state-sponsored Olympic propaganda. ProPublica also found that as well as automatically generating bot accounts using a bank of fake profile photos and usernames, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also used hijacked accounts or sold accounts that once belonged to real Twitter users. The New York Times also reported that some of the most influential pro-CCP YouTubers have been paid by Beijing, and the content they created was then used by Chinese government officials and state media.

In the past day or two, China seems to be moving tentatively toward a less openly pro-Russia position. According to several state media sources, who asked for anonymity, new propaganda instructions allow for more civilian damage to be shown. For instance, Phoenix Media published an article featuring a Chinese couple evacuating Ukraine with their two children. The husband was shot during a car ride and was hospitalized in Ukraine for days. This article, which included photos, vividly showed the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians and the war’s cruelty. However, media outlets are still not allowed to take any political stance directly on the events either for or against Russia or Ukraine.

But being anti-American is still fine. One aspect that hasn’t shifted is the anti-U.S., anti-NATO tone. China’s Xinhua News Agency launched a few Facebook ad campaigns on March 17 featuring content saying “double standards adopted by the West” and “the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is rooted in NATO’s ambition to expand eastward.” On March 16, Xinwen Lianbo cited an analyst saying that the United States sending weapons to Ukraine escalated the conflict.

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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