China Using Facebook Ads to Attack America, Spread Virus Disinformation

April 15, 2020 Updated: April 15, 2020

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using its state-run social media accounts, which boast tens of millions of followers, to spread disinformation via Facebook and Instagram advertisements in an attempt to criticize President Donald Trump and alter the narratives on the CCP virus pandemic.

The ads, many of which ran with no political disclaimer, were spread to English-speaking audiences across the world through China’s major state-controlled media companies, including the Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV), and China Global Television Network (CGTN).

The political ads, which have drawn roughly 45 million views since Feb. 15, represent another escalation of Beijing’s already brazen disinformation campaign. As Renée DiResta—the technical research manager at Stanford’s Internet Observatory—noted, state-run media advertisements in 2019 mostly included “friendly images of pandas and kittens … and amplified feel-good political stories.”

That changed when February hit.

“The ads began boosting state media coverage of the coronavirus, with dozens of ads praising [Chinese leader Xi Jinping] for his leadership and emphasizing China’s ability to contain the disease,” DiResta, whose team studied hundreds of state-run media ads, wrote in The Atlantic. “By March 2020, angry ads appeared in the mix, promoting outraged coverage of President Donald Trump’s use of the term Chinese virus.”

Undisclosed political ads on Facebook don’t show information such as who was being targeted or who had financed the spots; however, Facebook later began flagging the items. Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads can be found in their ad library, which is searchable online.

“President Trump … seems impatient when it comes to epidemic controls. He and his team are still misleading American society,” one ad in the Global Times as recent as April 13 stated. “Racism in ink,” a March 20 ad in China Xinhua News read, referring to the story of Trump crossing out “corona” and replacing it with “Chinese” in his notes.

“China’s efforts to fight #COVID19 were met with incessant defamation and stigmatization from the beginning … #WesternFallaciesDebunked,” one ad that ran from March 27 to April 2 in the Global Times stated. That ad ran without a disclaimer.

Epoch Times Photo
A screenshot of a state-run media ad. (Screenshot)

“U.S. President Donald Trump and his opponents have shamelessly politicized one of the most naturally occurring things ever—a global pandemic,” another ad, posted by CCTV, stated on April 13. Meanwhile, numerous ads have portrayed Xi’s response to the outbreak in a positive light.

The racism narrative pushed by Beijing is one of many gaining traction in U.S. media and asserts that calling the pathogen “the Wuhan virus” is racist, despite the fact that Chinese state-run media have used the term themselves, as seen in Xinhuathe Global Times, and elsewhere. Previous diseases such as Ebola, Zika, the West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and the Spanish flu are all named after the places where the viruses emerged.

Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, told The Epoch Times that the barrage of political advertisements are a “natural next step” for Beijing’s digital influence operations. For example, Global Times has more than 52 million followers on its official Facebook account, while The New York Times, by comparison, has just over 17 million followers.

The CCP seeks to draw attention to the failures of other nations as they grapple with COVID-19 and deflect scrutiny from their own bungled response, Brooking said.

Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, called the pivot to attack ads “another front for the CCP to use,” adding that from China’s perspective, “this is a matter of an existential threat.”

“While outlets like the Washington Post have been condemned for running advertisements from China Daily, those had been marked as ‘advertisement,'” Lohman told The Epoch Times. “This is different, in that the ads are not labeled as advertisements (nor is the source always made explicit).” 

Social media platforms have been major tools utilized by the CCP to push its propaganda. State-run media such as Xinhua News last month began including the hashtags “#Trumpandemic” and “#TrumpVirus” on its news posts on Facebook and Twitter. 

In a phone call at the end of March, meanwhile, Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to “tamp down their war of words over the novel coronavirus.”

But Brooking, like other China experts, says the truce is temporary, if at all.

“Just because the information war is less visible, this does not mean that it has stopped,” he said. “The rhetoric between Trump and Xi has indeed softened, but conspiracy theories about coronavirus continue to spread at an alarming rate.

“This perceptual battle is too important to both the United States and China for either side to abandon it entirely,” Brooking added.

Internal government documents obtained by The Epoch Times have highlighted how the Chinese regime purposefully underreported cases of the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus and which causes the disease COVID-19, and censored discussions of the outbreak, helping to fuel its spread.

Lohman said Beijing will do whatever it takes to preserve its own rule and that this “will always involve a sort of public-opinion warfare aimed at the U.S.”

Facebook officials didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment. A spokesperson told VICE News that some of the ads weren’t caught by their systems even though they should have been, while others ran “in countries in which Facebook does not require disclosure.

“We are progressing on our plans to label state-controlled media pages on Facebook, including from China, and will have more to share on this soon,” the spokesperson said. “We are continuing to work with publishers and third-party experts on this issue to ensure that we get this right.”

Facebook said the ads not labeled as “political” by state-run media would “simply have disappeared once they expired, making it virtually impossible to assess the full scale of China’s propaganda effort,” according to VICE.

Last month, almost 15,000 contractors who moderate Facebook’s content were placed on paid leave due to the pandemic; the company is increasingly relying on AI and algorithms in lieu of human moderators.

‘Soft Power’

The CCP is attempting to use its “soft power” to influence public opinion around the world, which is now turning decisively against Beijing, says Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger: China.

“In 2007, Hu Jintao (former general secretary of the CCP) told the Seventeenth Party Congress that it was time to fight back against the West and launch its own soft-power initiative,” Mosher told The Epoch Times. “Since then, the CCP has spent billions to extend its media outreach around the world.”

China has deliberately masked the total number of COVID-19 cases in China in a bid to safeguard its image both nationally and internationally, as a growing list of countries express anger and frustration over Beijing’s handling of the CCP virus.

Beijing officials have previously accused the United States of being the origin of the CCP virus as part of a wider propaganda initiative that draws upon every weapon in its arsenal, including “online, print, and broadcast media that it has purchased or fostered over the past 12 years,” Mosher said.

The extent or effect of these ads on Americans is unclear.

The “less they know about China, the more they will be swayed” by disinformation, Mosher said. Due to the CCP virus, however, more people are paying attention to the dangers of the regime in Beijing, he added.

“A few Facebook ads are probably not sufficient to counter the fear and anxiety they are feeling for themselves and their families that the CCP’s evil and incompetence have stoked,” he said, referring to the American public.

The political ads may “muddy the waters,” but Lohman said the reaction is far more likely to center on people’s confirmation bias.

“Those who already feel favorable toward China will feel that they are not alone, that there are others who feel the same way,” he said. “And of course, it will be unwittingly picked up by some who are motivated principally by their political opposition to Trump.”

Attila Tomaschek, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com, told The Epoch Times that the CCP propaganda machine “is working at full tilt” and that should come as no surprise because it’s exactly how the regime operates. Despite some political advertisements gaining a large number of views, he said most Americans know to take anything from China’s state-run media with a “giant grain of salt.”

An April 8 survey from Harris Poll found that 77 percent of Americans nationally blame the CCP for the spread of the virus. That belief was echoed across the political spectrum, with 67 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 90 percent of Republicans attributing the virus to the communist regime.

At the same time, the CCP wants to exploit the pandemic to “hold itself up as a ‘model’ on how to deal with the epidemic,” Mosher said, noting that China is worried that other nations will unite against it.

“The ultimate reason is that [China] is at war with the United States across all domains except the kinetic, and is desperately and belatedly trying to turn defeat into victory where the CCP virus is concerned,” he said.

Some China experts told The Epoch Times that U.S. tech companies shouldn’t ban Chinese officials and state-run media from their platforms, while others said they should.

“Chinese officials and state-run media are trying to reach a global audience. That is why they have access to social media,” Lohman noted. “The U.S. government, and Americans more generally, business and media, should miss no opportunity to point out this contradiction.”

“I have long thought that we should demand absolute parity with China in all things,” Mosher added.

Some experts suggest that the United States is increasingly closing its doors to engagement with China. Bipartisan opposition to the CCP may also be at an all-time high because of the pandemic.

In addition, U.S. lawmakers have called for the Chinese regime to be punished for its role in covering up and lying about the pandemic, which allowed the virus to spread to more than 200 countries.

In the United Kingdom, ministers and senior Downing Street officials said China now faces a “reckoning” over its handling of the outbreak and risks becoming a “pariah state,” according to a report in The Mail on March 28. That report detailed how scientific advisers warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that China’s official statistics on the virus might be being “downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times” and that Beijing is attempting to exploit the pandemic for economic gain.

Follow Bowen on Twitter: @BowenXiao_