China's social media propaganda machine has tried to shift the country's image from a source of COVID-19 to a global leader in fighting it, research reveals

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China's social media propaganda machine has tried to shift the country's image from a source of COVID-19 to a global leader in fighting it, research reveals

Xi Jinping Coronavirus China
  • China has sought to portray itself on English-language social media as the global leader in the fight against COVID-19 rather than as the origin of the novel coronavirus, new research reveals. 
  • Through more than 32,000 social media posts from verified government accounts, China has bulled its way toward a different image of its role in COVID-19. 
  • "I really see China as embracing this seminal moment to take control on the narrative," the lead researcher on the report told Business Insider.  
  • Posts have pushed back on Western leaders when they have been critical of China's handling of the pandemic. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The Chinese government has orchestrated a social media campaign to shift the narrative of China as a source of COVID-19 to a view of it as a global leader in its response to the pandemic, according to new research released Monday

The campaign seeks to portray China's response to COVID-19 as the best in the world, according to a report from the cybersecurity data company Recorded Future, which analyzed more than 32,000 English-language messages from around 50 verified, state-run accounts on Western social media platforms, between January 1 and March 9. 

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The report finds that the messaging around the coronavirus follows China's familiar crisis-response pattern: In the early days, "social media posts from state-run organizations are likely at their most transparent and accurate," but the messaging tends to "degrade over time as the propaganda machine kicks in to influence the message being sent abroad."

Priscilla Moriuchi, an analyst at Recorded Future, says that China has been "embracing this seminal moment to take control on the narrative" and push its larger agenda. 

"China has a very specific set of strategic goals related to their ascendancy on the global stage," she told Business Insider. "Their primary goal is to make other countries comfortable with the role they want to play in the world."

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China's first phase of messaging, between January 9 and February 10, generally followed the progression of the outbreak and the country's responses. Social media posts initially sought to "minimize the outbreak and the potential for human-to-human transmission," the report found. 

From February 11 and onward, the tone of the postings shifted: Posts started shifting the blame away from the Chinese government and portraying China and President Xi Jinping as global leaders in COVID-19 response.

By late February and early March, messages started highlighting several other themes, including that the West was "using COVID-19 as an excuse and a tool to contain China's rise" and  that the "origins of COVID-19 are unclear and the Chinese government is not at fault," the report found. 

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Moriuchi said the COVID-19 campaign was far more negative than prior Western-focused influence operations run by China, and included push back at comments that were critical of China from President Trump, US Sen. Marco Rubio, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

U.S. officials, including President Trump, have repeatedly referred to the global pandemic as "the Chinese virus," despite a rise in hate crimes toward Asians.

While the Chinese propaganda machine may be trying to frame the country as a global leader in its response to the virus, world leaders aren't convinced. 

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other UK officials reportedly believe that China has significantly misled the world about the virus and its severity, including by underestimating deaths of its citizens, while seeking to build its economic power by offering other nations help.

Still, while China has censored people who have spoken out about the coronavirus, some global health experts argue that its data has been trustworthy overall. 

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Recorded Future's report.

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Read the full report here. 

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