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A passenger boards a bus with a message supporting Italy in their efforts against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Hangzhou, China, March 24. Photo: STR /AFP/China OUT via Getty Images

Between March 11 and 23, as China was delivering much-needed medical supplies to Italy, bots pushed two pro-China, Italian-language hashtags, according to a March 30 investigation published by Italian news outlet Formiche.

The big picture: 46.3% of tweets using the peppy-sounding hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia, which means "come on China and Italy," were bots, according to an analysis performed by Alkemy in partnership with Formiche.

  • The other hashtag was #grazieCina, which means "Thank you China." 37.1% of tweets using this hashtag were bots.
  • Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts, including the account belonging to the Chinese Embassy in Italy, used these hashtags.

Why it matters: China's medical donations to countries fighting the coronavirus have been accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign aimed at improving China's image in recipient countries.

  • It's not just Italy. A March 26 investigation by ProPublica revealed more than thousands of suspect Twitter accounts have pushed Chinese government narratives about the coronavirus in recent months.

What they're saying: "Maybe the public opinion is not really aware in Italy that these kinds of operations are directed and have people behind them," Francesco Bechis, one of the journalists who worked on the Formiche story, told Axios.

  • "We’ve been through a moment of great despair and fear," said Bechis. "It’s not a coincidence that the Chinese diplomatic machine would try to explore this moment to gain ground."

Go deeper: China's medical diplomacy is empowering euroskeptic leaders

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