TWITTER ACCOUNTS linked with China’s state media have been busy this month, as usual. They have questioned the safety of covid-19 vaccines made in the West while promoting China’s own. They have floated theories (again) about the pandemic having started somewhere other than China. They have promoted Potemkin tales of happy Uyghurs in Xinjiang, while attacking Western reports about horrors there. A misleading English-language video tweeted by China Daily called the BBC the “Biased Broadcasting Corporation”.
Official propagandists follow orders. In 2013 China’s leader, Xi Jinping, told them to “tell China’s story well” around the world, ie, to boast of its achievements. They have amassed large followings on Western social-media platforms, which are blocked in China. But the audience for their story may be dwindling, at least on Twitter. A new study by China Media Project, a research organisation in Hong Kong, suggests that Twitter itself has recently limited the reach and influence of accounts that are linked to China’s state-managed news services.
In August Twitter attached the label “China state-affiliated media” to accounts run by official mouthpieces including CGTN, a global broadcaster; Xinhua, the main official news agency; and newspapers such as People’s Daily and China Daily. It did the same to the accounts of journalists working for them. (Twitter also applied such labels to state-controlled media in a few other countries, as Facebook had begun doing in June.) At the same time Twitter said it would stop giving prominence to these accounts by displaying their tweets among “top” results in searches. (This followed a decision by Twitter in 2019 to bar state-linked accounts from advertising or promoting tweets on the platform; Facebook enacted a similar policy in June.)
China Media Project studied 33 affected Twitter accounts in China over 100 days. It found that most of them had experienced “significantly fewer shares and likes” for their tweets in the weeks following Twitter’s introduction of its labelling policy compared with the previous weeks. The three most popular accounts—those of CGTN, Xinhua and People’s Daily, which together have a following of 33m—experienced declines in retweets and likes of more than 20%. Likes for tweets by Global Times, a nationalist tabloid in Beijing, dropped more than 30%.
The findings raise questions about the role Twitter and other Western social-media platforms play in helping China’s propagandists fulfil Mr Xi’s wishes. In March 2020 Zhao Lijian, a foreign-ministry spokesman, prompted a furore (including in the White House) with a viral tweet suggesting that American military visitors may have seeded covid-19 in China. Mr Zhao is often called a “wolf warrior” because of his pugnacious style on Twitter (the nickname refers to the titles of popular Chinese films featuring a Rambo-like character). On January 17th he was prowling again, retweeting two posts by Liu Xin, a CGTN presenter, that called on Western media to focus on deaths in Germany and Norway of old people who had taken the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for covid-19.
Such posts, along with others promoting the adoption of China’s own vaccines abroad, suggest an attempt by China’s propagandists to sap faith in non-Chinese vaccines. That is reckless at a time when public acceptance of well-tested ones is so vital to ending the pandemic. (Twitter said Ms Liu’s tweets did not violate its rules.)
Donald Trump’s tweets about election fraud have raised similar concerns about the harm caused by disinformation supercharged by social media. This month both Twitter and Facebook suspended Mr Trump, prompting some to fret about the influence wielded by a small number of private companies. Simply labelling state media as state media is a less controversial approach, and it may work to some degree. Mr Zhao and Ms Liu have a total of more than 1m followers, but the diplomat’s recent retweets of Ms Liu’s concerns about vaccine deaths have not been shared nearly as widely as his troublemaking tweets of last March. The wolf warriors are still online, but their snarls are less audible. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Wolf taming”