Chinese diplomacy ramps up social media offensive in COVID-19 info war

Beijing-linked diplomats have multiplied social media output four-fold since April 2019 as they seek to counter Western narratives, analysts say.

Chinese diplomacy ramps up social media offensive in COVID-19 info war

China’s embassy in Paris retweeted claims from a fringe conspiracy website about the origin of the coronavirus. Beijing’s consul general in Kolkata, India promoted a social media post from RT, the Russian-backed media outlet, that blamed the United States for the pandemic. A Chinese diplomat in The Netherlands went on social media to accuse U.S. officials of spreading misinformation about the public health crisis.

As the world grapples with the coronavirus crisis, China’s diplomats are waging an online information war.

A POLITICO review of social media messages by more than 100 Chinese officials showed a sizable increase in the number of posts since the COVID-19 crisis began in early 2020. Alongside more mundane content, some of Beijing’s diplomats have promoted content harshly critical of both United States and the European Union, dismissed criticism of how China handled the global outbreak and amplified skewed content from Russian state-backed outlets with track records of widespread misinformation.

The ramped-up activity coincides with warnings from Western diplomats and misinformation experts that Beijing has changed its online tactics in the wake of last year’s Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Increasingly, China has become more aggressive in promoting itself on Western social media, tapping into existing populist sentiment online that is already undermining trust in democratic systems among U.S. and EU voters.

The online push comes as the global response to the coronavirus pandemic becomes a political tug-of-war, with state-backed actors including those from China and Russia flexing their muscles to promote messaging to audiences at home and abroad. In the latest example of diplomatic pressure, Chinese officials successfully leaned on the EU last week to water down its criticism of Beijing’s disinformation tactics linked to COVID-19.

“If Russia is a tropical storm, then China is climate change.” — Jānis Sārts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence

“As soon as the coronavirus jumped out of China, the narratives shifted to play up the benevolence of China,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “And when Donald Tump started aggressively pushing against China’s response, they started to change again to point the fingers at the United States.”

A spokesman for China’s mission to the EU did not return a request for comment on how the country’ communication strategy has changed during the ongoing public health crisis that has left almost 220,000 people dead worldwide.

‘Enormous capabilities’

Beijing’s social media push comes amid a groundswell of half-truths, rumors and outright lies about the coronavirus.

Western politicians, including President U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, have sowed doubt by promoting dubious or false theories about who created the virus and how it can be treated. People from Berlin to Boston have also taken to social media to spout bogus claims to others in search of answers.

To analyze China’s social media strategy, Schafer and Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, reviewed the activity of more than 135 official Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts. The number of posts, collectively, has risen roughly four-fold since April 2019, when the political unrest in Hong Kong took off, according to their analysis.

That marks a stark change.

In December, just as the world was beginning to wake up to the coronavirus threat, the Chinese Twitter accounts, which at the time totaled around 100, were collectively publishing up to 4,000 posts on the social media network each month. Now, the combined monthly number has more than quadrupled to 17,000 tweets, although that figure also includes an influx of new Chinese diplomat accounts since January.

Beijing’s “use of Twitter feels experimental,” said Berzina in reference to China’s evolving social media activities. “The strategy on Twitter could quickly change.”

As would be expected from an authoritarian state, many Chinese diplomats on social media (as well as government accounts linked to state media outlets and other agencies) promote content hailing Beijing’s achievements, including the country’s support for other nations in responding to the current public health crisis.

But others are significantly more aggressive, according to a review conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy and POLITICO’s own independent analysis.

In Paris, where the country’s official embassy account has more than 15,000 followers, one post promoted content from a U.S. fringe website that attacked claims from some U.S. officials that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Last month, the same Paris-based account retweeted accusations, also made on Twitter, by Zhao Lijian, a senior official in China’s ministry of foreign affairs, that the U.S. military may have brought the virus to China. “When did patient zero start in the United States?,” the account wrote in a post that garnered six retweets. “The U.S. owes us an explanation!”

“The Paris embassy is aggressive with its own tweets,” said Schafer. “They’re willing to defend themselves online.”

Latching onto content

Chinese officials also have relayed rumors, conspiracy theories and misinformation spread by state-backed media from Russia, Iran and Venezuela. So far, this strategy is more ad hoc, left to individual accounts, than a coordinated campaign directed from Beijing, according to a review of these posts by POLITICO.

In Caracas, Li Baorong, the country’s ambassador to Venezuela, shared several posts from Telesur, the local state media outlet, criticizing how the U.S. and European countries had handled the crisis. In Karachi, China’s consul general for Pakistan retweeted a report from RT, allegedly showing German police manhandling people who broke the country’s lockdown rules.

Several official Chinese embassy Twitter accounts — from Italy and Spain to the U.S. and Hungary — also shared online posts by Maffick Media, a viral video and news outlet funded by Russia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian | Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

While the sharing of such content did not necessarily mean Chinese officials endorsed such anti-West coverage (many of the Twitter accounts also posted material from more established media outlets), it highlighted how Beijing could be willing to latch onto narratives from countries associated with coordinated disinformation campaigns as part of their wider messaging around COVID-19.

“Many countries have a national interest in blaming the U.S.,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, the social media analysis firm who has traced state-backed disinformation campaigns across social media.

More is likely to follow, according to Western officials and misinformation experts.

So far, China’s online activities have been less sophisticated than those of Russia, particularly on Western social media sites where officials have less of a footprint than the country’s domestic alternatives like Tencent’s WeChat.

Yet in Canada’s national election last October, mistruths about Justin Trudeau, the country’s prime minister, were shared widely on WeChat within Canada’s Mandarin-speaking diaspora, most likely with the support of Beijing, according to Taylor Owen, a professor at McGill University who followed the digital campaign.

Similar tactics are now starting to find their way onto Twitter and Facebook, and Western misinformation experts warn that where Russia first led, China will likely follow in the online disinformation arms race.

“If Russia is a tropical storm, then China is climate change,” said Jānis Sārts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a NATO-affiliated group, that tracks government-backed disinformation campaigns. “They have the technology that Russia just doesn’t have. Their capabilities are enormous.”

Laurens Cerulus contributed reporting.

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France’s latest corona diversion: nicotine

Some researchers are studying nicotine as the latest controversial drug to battle the coronavirus.

France’s latest corona diversion: nicotine

France is once again the source of a new hype over a potential therapy for COVID-19: nicotine.

Paris rushed to restrict the sale of nicotine products over the past weekend, banning their sale online, to avoid shortages of products such as nicotine gum and patches.

It wasn’t any sudden onset of smokers’ remorse that prompted the scramble, but news that French scientists were looking to start a clinical trial administering nicotine patches as a potential protective medicine to battle the coronavirus.

That announcement followed a study in a Paris hospital suggesting cigarette smokers are less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

The country has already seen fanfare over another controversial would-be coronavirus cure, when Marseille based doctor Didier Raoult put forward the use of anti-malarial drug chloroquine, without adequate scientific evidence and despite serious potential side effects.

If nicotine in cigarettes indeed protects smokers, it would overturn the common-sense assumptions about an activity linked to worsening lung function.

Unlike with chloroquine, there’s no indication so far that scientific interest over nicotine has generated a rush to French pharmacies — despite the government’s preemptive move — nor has it prompted the sort of social media fueled hype that made Raoult a celebrity.

Yet the news risks once again blurring carefully crafted messages from health authorities.

The World Health Organization in its own informational materials has said that smokers are “likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19.”

The health authority argues that the movement associated with smoking makes infections more likely because of increased contact between lips and fingers. Furthermore, smokers may already be suffering from lung diseases, which increase the risk of hospitalization.

A strange cure

If nicotine in cigarettes indeed protects smokers, it would overturn the common-sense assumptions about an activity linked to worsening lung function, given that the severe cases of the virus are associated with respiratory failure.

Those principles have guided the broader global response, as countries around the world have restricted the use of tobacco products since the viral outbreak.

India, for example has clamped down on chewing tobacco for fear that it could propagate the disease, while numerous states across the Middle East have stopped cafes and shops from serving water pipes to customers. South Africa went as far as banning cigarette sales altogether, though it has since relaxed the restriction.

Vinayak Prasad, the program manager leading the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said the organization isn’t discounting the French study. A panel of experts will look at the data alongside other evidence and put out an official communication shortly, he noted.

But for the time being, he said, the WHO stands by its message: The risk of COVID-19 and the severity of an eventual infection are likely to be higher when smoking.

“We have sufficient information from previous epidemics like SARS and others,” Prasad explained. “We have seen that these are viruses that are targeting the lungs.”

“It’s a no brainer that the severity of infection would be higher among long standing smokers, especially if they have comorbidities,” he added, referring to other associated medical conditions.

The Paris study

The origin of the nicotine trial proposal lies in a study of coronavirus patients in the hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris.

Researchers observed a significantly lower-than-expected number of smokers being treated in the French hospital when compared with the smoking rate among the general French population. In a subsequent paper, they theorized that a link exists between nicotine and a protective effect from the virus.

The evidence is by no means unanimous, however. For one, the study has not yet been peer reviewed. Meanwhile, other scientific literature has taken the opposite conclusion.

The origin of the nicotine trial proposal lies in a study of coronavirus patients in the hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris | Mohammed Badra/EPA-EFE

A meta-analysis of 12 different papers, in fact, found a significant association between smoking and progression of COVID-19, with smokers more at risk of the disease getting worse than non-smokers.

Ivan Berlin, a physician and associate professor of clinical pharmacology at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, the same one where the French study was conducted, was unsparing in his criticism.

“This paper has no level of evidence — it’s not even a low evidence,” Berlin said.

The professor noted that the French study looked only at current smokers and non-smokers. That means the sample might exclude recent quitters who had been smoking until recently.

Furthermore, the study compared COVID-19 positive patients to the general population from a 2018 survey. That’s a problem, says Berlin, because the data isn’t up to date. Furthermore, the general population sample didn’t accurately reflect the patient group, which was sicker and had more comorbidities than the general population.

Filippos Filippidis, a senior lecturer in public health at Imperial College London and expert member of the European Respiratory Society’s Tobacco Control Committee, agreed that not knowing the smoking history of the patients in the Paris study is a serious gap.

“What creates things like cancer and strokes is not nicotine but poisonous substances in the cigarette” — Peter Liese, German MEP

“Old people or people with other conditions are more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, but those people — because they’re so fragile — would be more likely to have quit smoking,” he pointed out. By extension, “it would be likely that a very small proportion are current smokers.”

The scientists who conducted the study declined to comment, but Florence Tubach, one of the study co-authors, stressed in an article in Le Monde that the potential effect of nicotine is still a hypothesis for now.

I maintain the conditional [when talking about it] because our work remains observational,” she said. 

German MEP Peter Liese, health spokesman for the European People’s Party, said that it’s crucial in any case to distinguish between tobacco and nicotine.

“What creates things like cancer and strokes is not nicotine but poisonous substances in the cigarette,” Liese said. He noted the study wouldn’t examine the use of smoking but of nicotine, which can be administered in patches or gum, for example.

The scientists who conducted the study declined to comment, | Ronald Wittek/EPA-EFE

The issue has encapsulated the difficulties that health authorities face in managing communication at a time when people are looking for a lifeline even though the science isn’t settled.

The MEP said that experts must walk a fine line, remaining careful whenever there’s uncertainty while continuing to communicate strongly.

“That’s an uncomfortable situation,” he said.

For current smokers, however, he had a simple message: “I would strongly advise everyone to quit smoking.”

“And if you don’t think you can quit altogether, e-cigarettes and nicotine patches are alternatives that most likely don’t have negative effects on the lung,” Liese added. “If there’s a protective effect, even better.”

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