Aug 24, 2022 - World

First look: U.S. warns of China's efforts to "manipulate" narrative on Xinjiang

A keybord with the Chinese flag on the return key.
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

China is using “wolf warrior” diplomats, foreign and private media, and social media influencers to "flood" online spaces and manipulate the global narrative on Xinjiang, the State Department warns in a new report.

Why it matters: The report, set to be published Wednesday, highlights what the Biden administration says is a large-scale coordinated scheme by Chinese government-directed or affiliated actors to "dominate global discourse on Xinjiang" and "discredit independent sources reporting" on the treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in the region.

  • It also comes at a fraught time in U.S.-China relations following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan earlier this month.

Details: The report, based largely on media sources, says the Chinese government is engaging in an elaborate, multi-pronged effort to amplify Beijing’s preferred narratives on Xinjiang in order to drown out and marginalize narratives of what the U.S. has called “genocide," a charge Beijing has repeatedly denied.

Some of the tactics used by China's government include, per the report:

The report was put together by the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which has recently expanded its efforts to shine a light on Chinese and Russian state-backed disinformation campaigns.

  • The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

The big picture: Extensive Chinese state-backed disinformation campaigns have targeted other topics as well, including the 2019 Hong Kong protests and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Experts say U.S. government efforts to fight online disinformation, whether domestic or foreign government-backed, are heavily constrained by speech protections.
  • YouTube and Twitter began labeling state-linked accounts in 2018 and 2020, respectively, and have on several occasions announced the removal of bot networks suspected of having ties to the Chinese government.
  • But analysts say that social media company efforts aren't sufficient.
  • "Social media platforms need to urgently shift their thinking and move from taking down these campaigns though a defensive ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, to a more pre-emptive and proactive stance," wrote researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in June.
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