How is it using internet bots and Russian-style disinformation to manipulate public opinion globally?
And why is it important to distrust official data and talking points coming from China, especially when it comes to COVID 19?
In this episode, we sit down with Sarah Cook, a Senior Research Analyst for Freedom House focusing on China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. She also directs Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin, a monthly digest with news and analysis on media freedom in China.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Sarah Cook, so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Sarah Cook: My pleasure. It’s nice to be back.
Mr. Jekielek: Chinese Communist Party disinformation is your specialty. You just had an amazing China Media Bulletin, which I read every month. Tell me what you’re seeing.
Ms. Cook: Some of what we’re seeing is new. A lot of it are various examples of Chinese official state media, Chinese official accounts by foreign ministry spokespeople, or by diplomats, and various Twitter bot networks, essentially propagating various clearly proven falsehoods—real hardcore disinformation with regards to the coronavirus and the situation right now. There were a few early examples, and it’s definitely amplified. One example that a lot of people caught early on was when the virus and the outbreak were mostly within Wuhan, and the Chinese government was building these makeshift hospitals or quarantine centers. And they (the CCP) were advertising [it], and everybody was like, “Wow, China is building this in six days.” And then actually some of the Chinese state media were caught as having used catalog photos. …
But since then it’s really evolved to be even more troublesome falsehoods and manipulations. The biggest one is this effort to say that the virus did not actually originate in China. There’s a few versions of that. There were general statements by a Chinese epidemiologist and others saying, “Well, we don’t know that it started in China. We can’t really know that that’s where it started.” There are other conspiracy theories that have been amplified by official sources, saying, “Oh, it’s actually started in the U.S.,” and even “The U.S. military brought it to China.” Again, proven false. Now in Italy, there is also a Chinese state media saying, “Well, maybe it started in Italy. And so, you have things like started off as conspiracy theories, and got picked up and amplified by Chinese official accounts.
Some Italian journalists had done a report based on analysis of Twitter conversations and hashtags in Italy. We’re now moving on to another stage of the narrative of China trying to send medical supplies to different countries, and apparently this #grazieCina— “Thank you, China”—was trending in Italy. They found that 37% of the retweets were by bots. So, it was actually a manipulated echo chamber. And then on top of that, there was this video that supposedly showed Italians saying, “Thank you, China,” and again, was actually a false doctored video, but a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted out that video and said, “Oh, we should all work for common humanity,” and things like that. So, you definitely see deliberate and active efforts by both these kinds of hidden bot networks and inauthentic accounts on networks like Twitter, as well as official Chinese state media, and Chinese diplomats and official spokespeople, basically spreading provenly false information about various aspects of what’s happening with regard to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Mr. Jekielek: Is this propaganda more for the benefit of the Chinese population that the Chinese Communist Party has captive, or is this more for the benefit of the international community, since a lot of this is in English?
Ms. Cook: It’s both. I think some of what we’re seeing is for domestic audiences, and some of it is for international audiences, and maybe even different parts of the international community. It’s fascinating and disturbing to see how these narratives have evolved. This is one of the things we analyzed in the latest issue of the China Media Bulletin. If you look at the first three weeks of January, when you already start having pretty high-level meetings including Xi Jinping about some kind of new coronavirus-SARS-like disease emerging in Wuhan, on front pages of the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, there’s nothing about it. It was all pre-planned content and a series about Xi Jinping visiting people in different parts of China, about the run-up to the Chinese New Year, and things like that. So basically, they really help set the tone for officials too, maybe not for all of the media coverage in China, but for officials to know what they’re supposed to prioritize during this time.
And then you started to see a few mentions [of coronavirus] as Wuhan went under lockdown. And as the virus clearly started spreading to other parts of China, another narrative emerged, which was this formulaic “Communist Party hero” narrative about medical professionals and individual sacrifices they were making on the front lines. And there was even an effort to frame doctor (Li Wenliang), who had died of coronavirus, as a martyr without acknowledging the fact that he was punished as a whistleblower. He had been reprimanded for trying to warn people on Chinese social media that some kind of new disease had emerged. But the Communist Party and the propaganda apparatus encountered real backlash from the Chinese people. They just weren’t buying it. Some of the things that were being shown were humiliating and terrible. There was one big CCTV program (China Central Television, the main nationwide broadcaster) that showed a nine-month pregnant woman—a nurse or a doctor—working on the front lines in Wuhan. That created enormous outrage of, “What are you talking about showing [this]? Send this woman home! Don’t make her work when she’s nine months pregnant, in this type of dangerous environment.”
So that was what we saw during February. Towards the end of February, that’s when these types of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus supposedly originating in the United States started circulating from non-official accounts. And maybe some officials started to pick up on the fact that this was gaining traction with other parts of the Chinese public, that the other narratives hadn’t been getting in terms of deflecting the blame from the CCP. And then you had this top Chinese epidemiologist say in a major press conference, “Well, we don’t know that it started in China.” And then slowly but surely you see more and more of this narrative being picked up, and being grabbed on to more and more aggressively by Chinese diplomats on Twitter, by pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, and then retweeted by the Chinese ambassadors. Even within China, you see that amidst all of the censorship about coronavirus and about criticism of the Chinese government’s response, suddenly all of these weird conspiracy theories that “the U.S. military brought it here”, that “it started in U.S. related to vaping”, and things like that—those miraculously aren’t being censored.
So you have a combination of deliberate pushing of this narrative, and implicit condoning and allowing it to circulate. At a time of legitimacy crisis for the Communist Party, they really latched onto that. I think for international audiences, it’s a way of trying to push back and muddy the waters at a time when it’s very clear that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are sick, and going to die, because of the Communist Party’s authoritarian political system. And they want to deflect that as much as possible.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s kind of astounding that they would try to flip it entirely the other way, and say it’s someone else’s fault.
Ms. Cook: The Communist Party is not very good at admitting their mistakes. There’s a reason why they ramp up censorship every year around June 4, because they don’t want to admit that the Chinese military slaughtered thousands of Beijing students or protesters around Tiananmen Square. They’re not going to admit that it was a mistake to crack down on Falun Gong. They’re not going to admit that they shouldn’t have detained millions of Uyghurs, and then have to say that these are “vocational education centers.” The CCP is not willing to admit their mistake because that has so many domestic implications. … I think the CCP sees this as a real existential crisis domestically. And so, they need to galvanize all the troops and use whatever tools they can find to push back. …
So they’ll … try to get quotes from medical experts, the UN saying, or the head of the World Health Organization saying, “Oh, China did a really good job in its response.” And that’s what you see all over Chinese media domestically. The international stuff is tied to the domestic element. But I think also there is an international element here. Maybe Americans might not believe that it could have originated in the U.S. … But you look at other parts of the world where there’s more anti-American sentiment, or belief in other types of conspiracy theories related to 9-11, or related to what the CIA does… Then you throw this into the mix on social media. If you look at the wording, some of it is explicit, but some of it is a little bit more vague. And they also try to use this language, “We should look at the evidence”, and then they post to this conspiracy theory. Or they try to frame it, “This isn’t the time for blame; this is the time that we should be looking at global cooperation.” And maybe that’s true, but it’s really all used to really deflect the blame, and to try to change the conversation. [You’ll see this] particularly in social media in parts of the world that might be more receptive to that type of narrative, and … therefore, welcome continued close relations with China and with the CCP.
Mr. Jekielek: The CCP actually tested a series of different narratives internally to see what resonated, and there were a whole bunch that didn’t. I thought that was fascinating.
Ms. Cook: There was a day when Xi Jinping himself went to Wuhan, and on that very day, a Chinese magazine ran a big front cover article that was an interview with one of the doctors in Wuhan who had actually been reprimanded. It went viral on social media, and then of course, the censors are trying to tamp it down, but then the Chinese netizens are trying to find all kinds of ways to still share this article. … It was a big blow. That day was supposed to be Xi’s victory—his victory lap—in Wuhan. It was in the face of that type of skepticism of the official narrative, and an outpouring of rage, and grief, and anger, and calls for free speech, that they (the CCP) were looking for something that might stick a little better. And they stumbled on this [conspiracy theory about the origins of the virus].
That’s one of the reasons why it does make it more difficult to also trust the numbers that are coming out of China now because the regime is so deeply invested in declaring a success that a book was already being published about how Xi Jinping had led the battle successfully against Covid-19, and that was when there were so many, many more cases happening in China. It’s a combination of them having their narratives and then trying to make reality match the narrative that they’ve constructed, both domestically and internationally.
Mr. Jekielek: Today we have a new report from Bloomberg that the U.S. intel community … have a classified report that the numbers are dramatically understated. Of course, we’ve known this through all sorts of anecdotal evidence, we just have no idea what the real numbers are. But it strains credulity. Most people will be thinking, “Sarah, this is so crazy. How can they just lie like this in plain daylight?” Can you speak to this a bit?
Ms. Cook: When you follow Chinese Communist Party propaganda, it’s pretty clear that they lie an awful lot. The things they say, whether it’s about Uyghurs, or Tibetans, or Falun Gong, or about June 4, … are just so far from any kind of reality, and rigorous, objective evidence—that’s just what they do. And we saw that with the Hong Kong protesters too. That was the first time you really saw this hardcore disinformation, real proven falsehoods that were trying to show that Hong Kong protesters were supposedly using U.S. made grenade launchers, that the US was behind the protests, things like that. That was one of the first times we really saw Chinese state media and inauthentic networks on Twitter being mobilized to spread this kind of disinformation.
The coronavirus is an even more dangerous domestic political vulnerability for the Communist Party, and so they’re just going more strongly at it. When it comes to falsifying data, there are just so many examples, whether it’s GDP data or organ transplants, just so much of it is manipulated either intentionally, in a more central and coordinated manner, or it’s just the outcome of internal incentives. Some of what you’re seeing now is that if officials are told, “You should not have any cases,” and if your livelihood is dependent on whether or not … there are cases in your area, then you’re going to find all kinds of ways to not have cases, either by manipulating data or by testing less. …That’s a large part of what happened in the early cover-up… The local officials in Wuhan were more concerned about political banquets and meetings that they were supposed to hold that month, [so they said] “We’re not allowed to have a public health crisis emerge during that time.”
This is something we’ve seen time and time again surrounding the National People’s Congress meetings every year, or surrounding the Olympics. You might remember a big scandal related to tainted baby formulas in China, and that was covered up for a period of time because of big national events. You have to understand that’s the environment that the officials are trying to navigate when they’re making these decisions of whether they declare that there’s a public health crisis emerging, or how many cases there are. This contributed to some of the slow responses in other countries… some people were like, “Well, China’s got 1.4 billion people and they’ve only had however many thousand cases. Maybe this coronavirus isn’t so bad.” And I think it’s very clear that that’s not the case, and it’s very clear that also there was a delay in admitting that there was human-to-human transmission. There are all kinds of ways in which these different elements of the cover-ups and the manipulation of information directly affect the international toll that this virus is taking on people.
Mr. Jekielek: Their system has cost a large number of lives. It’s just painful to think about, given how blatant their methods are.
Ms. Cook: People don’t follow these things as closely. There’s an under-appreciation of how interconnected the world is, and that the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship and repression is not only the Chinese people’s problem. People like me and people at Freedom House have been saying this for a long time. It’s not only about public health, but [the pandemic] brings it out so clearly, that these political pathologies in China, the Communist Party governs the country, have very real world and real-life consequences for people around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that really disturbs me is that Chinese numbers are often even on the Johns Hopkins official page, or on major news media. They’re being portrayed as legitimate. And I find that deeply disturbing that despite the preponderance of evidence that we shouldn’t accept these numbers at face value, the CCP’s official numbers are still published as fact. What do you make of this?
Ms. Cook: I think it actually shows how well the Chinese government and state media are playing the game. They’re very good at dictating the narrative in this way. They realize that this is something people want information about. And they’re going to give you some kind of information. People want some kind of information about what happened in China. And so they’ll take it at face value, [but] they should put a huge asterisk on it at least. But they don’t want to just leave China blank. Right? But maybe that’s what they should do… there should be some, perhaps, clear designation [from numbers that are] unlikely and inaccurate, that there’s even if we don’t know what the real number is.
In Wuhan, there are reports of the crematoria being overworked, but we actually aren’t seeing reports like that from other parts of China, at least not at the moment. … From that perspective, the Chinese government may be trying a little too hard. I think the numbers would actually be more believable if you had a couple dozen or a few hundred cases from different parts of China. But with zero cases outside of Hubei province, that just seems completely unrealistic. So I think they’re doing a disservice [to themselves] with the way they’re manipulating. …Their data manipulation is too neat.
The narrative that now the US has more cases than China, or that the US has the most number of cases in the world is helpful to people who are critical of the US government’s response. It’s a nice narrative to bang the drum, but I think it is really problematic. [They should] try to find ways to make some of those points without [feeding the lie that] there are so few cases in China.
Mr. Jekielek: The Chinese regime’s propaganda department still puts paid inserts into Western newspapers. What do you make of that?
Ms. Cook: The latest issue of The Economist had The Beijing Review, which is clearly a pro-Chinese government publication. And it ran side by side with an article praising saying how great the Chinese response was. We’ve seen the China Watch supplement online of The Wall Street Journal, which has overall been critical of what’s happening in China. It’s had journalists kicked out of China recently. [The China Watch supplement] has articles talking about how good the Chinese response to the outbreak has been.
…It might be a moment for some of these news outlets to reconsider this arrangement and see whether, at a time when people in their own countries are facing the consequences of this outbreak that was so badly mishandled in China, if they’re comfortable to say that China did a good job and we should all follow what China was doing.
A lot of human rights groups have said, “Is there really not any other place you could get advertising from even if it’s a difficult market?” This just might add pressure to discontinue this [ad] contractor, or put some kind of limit on what content is being inserted into the pages of the publication.
Mr. Jekielek: The US government has recently listed employees of these propaganda outfits from China as agents of the Chinese regime. The labeling is finally accurate because these people are not journalists. So perhaps this will provide this kind of tool that you’re describing.
Ms. Cook: The question of labeling comes up too often. … Twitter discovered this inauthentic network of Twitter bots [spreading false information about the Hong Kong protests] and took it down. And then the data was analyzed. But one of the things that we’ve seen differently in the last month are actual accounts of Chinese state media, and of Chinese diplomats and official spokespeople, sharing [misinformation]. Some kind of label like “this station is funded by the Chinese government” would be a good idea. But, it’s really tricky. I think another part of it is just trying to instill more people with a healthy skepticism of what Chinese officials are saying, particularly in moments of crisis for the CCP.
Mr. Jekielek: After the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the virus could have originated from the US, the Chinese ambassador to the US tried to distance himself from that statement. This caused me to crack a smile. What do you think is going on there?
Ms. Cook: What the Chinese government does is pitch different stories to different audiences. You might have a Xinhua news story. And the Chinese version is very different from the English version. [In the Chinese version], the tone is more aggressive, it’s more heavily politicized. Then the English version tries to paint things in a certain way. … But I don’t know that [the ambassador distancing himself] really matters to them because … they are trying to make the point that the origin may not be China—it could be the US, it could be Italy, we don’t really know. Then, the second thing is to muddy the waters, [spread doubt about] whether there is an actual truth.
That’s something that Moscow has done quite effectively on various kinds of incidents. Where there’s very clear evidence linking [an incident] back to the Kremlin, Russia’s propaganda will try to create conflicting conspiracy theories. They don’t care that they’re inconsistent, because the point is to undermine this conventional wisdom and the sense that there is actually a true reality here. … So from that perspective, the fact that you might have different Chinese officials contradicting themselves isn’t necessarily a problem [for the CCP].
Mr. Jekielek: So their official position isn’t important at all?
Ms. Cook: I think it depends on what the topic is. In this case, there’s been clear evidence of official backing for this particular narrative. But I think they don’t want to 100% own it. So they want to give space to the ambassador to distance himself, especially as they were seeing the kind of backlash it was generating in the United States. I also think a lot of this is experimentation. They’ve already experimented with some of these tactics in 2019 with regards to the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Hong Kong protests is when a lot of these Chinese diplomats got on Twitter. Before 2019, you had really just a handful. But in 2019, all of a sudden you have like 40 Chinese diplomats from different countries get on Twitter.
All of this is the CCP trying to figure out what’s going to stick for what audiences and what’s going to be effective at achieving the ultimate goal, which is to hold up the Communist Party’s legitimacy, to show that they handled this well, and to distract from anything that would really undermine their authority domestically and potentially internationally. I think they see this also as a moment of weakness for the United States—that it’s an opportunity to take advantage and maybe weaken the United States more.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned earlier that some people and governments in the world are more ready to accept the CCP narratives. It strikes me that this requires a vigorous response. What would that look like?
Ms. Cook: …If you get into too much of a he-said-she-said, that can actually feed into what the CCP is trying to do. But I think when you’re able to show how they’re doing it, and how much manipulation is behind it, that helps people understand, “wow, this is not truthful information and I should be really skeptical about this source, this narrative, or this type of information that I might be hearing.”
So I think exposing some of the ways that they’re doing this, on who’s behind different entities that are sharing information, is a big aspect of it. And then there are media regulation and registrations. How do you protect the space for the free flow of information and [allow] more solid reporting, and remove the space for disinformation from different news environments? That I think is a much bigger topic and gets outside of my personal area of expertise.
Mr. Jekielek: There is pushback in the media, even in China to some extent. Tell me about what the media are doing, or should be doing?
Ms. Cook: One of the things that’s been really amazing to watch in China, especially after so many years of suppression, has been the courage and the ingenuity of some journalists in China, as well as some of the media outside China. We’re trying to get information about what’s really happening. So you have this combination of people taking very real risks, whether it’s individual citizen journalists who went into Wuhan to try to film what was really going on, or sharing skepticism about the official death toll….
There’s a spectrum. You’ve got the Chinese state media, which are very tightly controlled. But you’ve got these other commercial media outlets, and it used to be that they had stronger investigative reporting teams. But they’ve been gutted in a lot of ways. But in this terrible human crisis where it’s so clear that there was a cover-up, … you’ve seen some of these media outlets do investigative reports. As soon as they publish it, it gets censored, but it goes viral on social media in China first, and then you have this cat and mouse game of people trying to share stories in really creative ways. Sometimes screenshots will work, but now there is automated AI-enabled censorship. So people translate it into Korean, they put it in pinyin, there was an emoji version of one of the articles. Somebody used some other kind of code, and if you knew the code, you could decode it.
And then there’s diaspora media, like the Epoch Times, NTDTV, Radio Free Asia, or other Chinese [-language] outlets that are editorially independent, who are trying to shed a light on what’s really happening. They use their own network of contacts. Some really good reporters have been able to talk to people in Wuhan and I think that’s where you get evidence of the true death toll being much higher… Even in the deeply constrained media environment of China, information still gets out, it even still circulates there. You also see from some of the circumvention tools to jump the firewall.
I was thinking about how to counter some of the disinformation. … Those of us on the other side can be even better about retweeting each other’s information so that reports of what’s actually happening can reach a wider audience…
Mr. Jekielek: How is Taiwan’s media playing into all of this right now?
Ms. Cook: I haven’t looked that closely at how Taiwanese media has been reporting on this. But in general, what you see with Taiwan and Hong Kong, is that in addition to the overall traditional media, which in some cases can be pretty partisan—and in some cases you can see Beijing’s influence—what you’ve seen happen in the last few years is the real rise of various digital news websites. And they generally tend to have business models that allow them to be more independent of the self-censorship that has affected other traditional media. So they’ve played a really important role. In some cases, they were started by journalists who got really frustrated with working at some of the other outlets. We’ve seen even some of the pieces I’ve written up and published, they get thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of views. One of the things that happen in those cases is that when they report something, it creates an internal debate that forces the media that might otherwise not cover it, to cover it. Because now it’s really obvious that if you’re not covering this, then you must be self-censoring. We saw that a bit with some of the Hong Kong protests—some of the media that were more in the middle had to pick sides a little more clearly.
I think what’s really interesting in Taiwan and Hong Kong is the deep public and governmental skepticism. It’s one of the reasons why Taiwan limited travel from China early on. Hong Kong was a very different situation where the government—because it’s much more beholden to Beijing—was really hesitant to act. But the Hong Kong people, especially after all these months of protests, [pushed the government] to close the border, and get masks. Hong Kong medical professionals went on strike. … Looking back, it really does seem to have been prescient. Some places in Africa, pretty early on, were testing people’s temperature at the airports… Even though there’s a really close connection with China, I think there is sometimes still an underlying skepticism, for example of product quality, and quality of information.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s been a lot of criticism of Western governments’ slow response and its relationship to the WHO, which repeated information from the CCP.
Ms. Cook: With regard to the World Health Organization, [the pandemic] really exposed the degree to which the Chinese government influences these types of global institutions. Part of it is that Taiwan tried to warn the WHO that there was human-to-human transmission and it was disregarded. The WHO also played into this narrative of praise for the Chinese government, delaying saying that this is a pandemic, some of the questions about access to medical specimens—all of these things fed into an inaccurate picture of what the virus was. And so you have a degree of under-preparedness in other places, in addition to governance failures that you have in other countries, which might be related to their own domestic systems.
Mr. Jekielek: What can the typical person do to have an impact in all of this?
Ms. Cook: Just try to be well informed yourself. Know and be skeptical of media that the Chinese government is using to insert information. If you’re a subscriber of one of these news media, like The Economist or The Wall Street Journal, and you see these [paid] inserts, send a letter [to the publisher]…. Maybe whoever’s making these decisions suddenly get a thousand letters from subscribers expressing outrage about these types of inserts, maybe that, more than the matter of principle, would cause them to re-examine that particular policy. … And our own institutions to be better prepared, and at the very least not further amplify what the Chinese government is trying to achieve.
And as we’re looking at the way different governments around the world are responding, just because your government may not be doing as good a job as you would like it to do, doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese government did a good job. It can be that the CCP had a horrific and costly governance failure. Some studies now are saying that maybe 95% of the cases globally could have been prevented if they had actually shared the information they had, and not tamp down on it in early January. That doesn’t mean that the governments of other parts of the world aren’t making mistakes as well. You can be critical of both. You don’t have to praise the Chinese Communist Party’s response as part of your way of voicing constructive criticism about your own government’s response. That’s something I would encourage people to think about.
Mr. Jekielek: Sarah, that’s a very powerful place to finish up. Thank you so much for being with us again.
Ms. Cook: My pleasure.