US report details China’s efforts to manipulate public opinion on Xinjiang
This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China is actively trying to rewrite the global narrative on its far-western Xinjiang region through a variety of digital tools it uses to try to discredit accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs who live there, according to a report issued by the U.S. State Department on Wednesday.
The report, which highlights a number of previous studies detailing Beijing’s disinformation campaign in regards to its repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, states that China uses so-called “astroturfing” to create a false appearance of support for its policies, social media hashtags to amplify “positive stories” on Xinjiang and discredit critical reports, and private media companies that craft information manipulation campaigns.
China also employs a fleet of trolls that harass the government’s global critics in an effort to intimidate them into silence, including through threats of death, rape, or assault, cyber-attacks, and other forms of cyberbullying, the report states.
“Pro-PRC [People’s Republic of China] stakeholders flood information ecosystems with counternarratives, conspiracy theories, and unrelated news items to suppress narratives detailing PRC authorities’ atrocities in Xinjiang. Government social media accounts, PRC-affiliated media, private accounts, and bot clusters, likely all directed by PRC authorities, assist in this effort,” the report says.
Astroturfing, or coordinated campaigns of inauthentic posts, seeks to create the illusion of widespread support for a policy or viewpoint, even though that support does not exist. Chinese actors seek to use social media to place positive stories about Xinjiang, including depictions of Uyghurs living happy lives and posts emphasizing the purported economic gains that Beijing’s policies have delivered to the region, according to the report.
In 2021, for example, more than 300 fake accounts posted thousands of videos of Uyghurs appearing to deny any abuses in the region, saying that they were “very free,” according to the report. Most of the videos were found to be created by propaganda officials and disseminated on China-based platforms before spreading to YouTube and Twitter.
Pro-China networks have been using artificial intelligence-generated content since at least January to produce realistic-looking profile pictures for fake accounts, creating composite images that cannot be traced using a reverse image search, making it harder to determine whether an account is inauthentic, the report says.
“Some of these accounts repeatedly denied the PRC’s atrocities in Xinjiang, falsely asserting that the body of overwhelming and objective independent evidence of the atrocities is simply a fabrication of the United States and its allies,” it says.
Social media hashtags such as #AmazingXinjiang and #Xinjiang meanwhile seek to highlight positive stories about Xinjiang and Uyghurs to counter independent reports of widespread abuse in the region.
Success with spreading disinformation
In 2017, authorities in Xinjiang began arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs other Turkic peoples in a vast network of “re-education” camps and in prisons, despite no evidence they had committed crimes. China claimed the facilities were “vocational training centers” meant to prevent religious extremism and radicalism and later said they had been closed.
It is believed that authorities have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in the camps. There is also evidence that some of the detainees were subjected to forced labor, torture, sexual assault, and forced sterilizations and abortions.
In addition, China has outsourced some of its foreign language information operations to take advantage of private sector innovation, engaging with at least 90 Chinese firms to design campaigns portraying the country in a positive light, the report says.
A publishing organization operated by Xinjiang’s Bureau of Radio, Film and Television paid a marketing company to create videos depicting Uyghurs supporting the Chinese government. A network of inauthentic accounts then amplified the videos on Twitter and YouTube.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his closest leaders in the Communist Party are largely responsible for the campaign to spread disinformation, said Albert Zhang, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre.
“I think they are successful with actually spreading disinformation, but also [with] silencing people from talking about what is happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other Turkic ethnic groups,” he told RFA.
“Even in the West and in English-speaking countries, although people might not believe the propaganda and disinformation coming out of Chinese official statements and state media, a lot of people are very scared to talk about this issue and won’t raise it to criticize the Chinese government because they know they will be targeted by the government with its coercive activities,” said Zhang, who wrote a policy paper issued in July on the impact of China’s information operations related to Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said the report plays a critical role in pushing back against China’s global disinformation campaign aimed at denying the Uyghur genocide.
“This is a positive step taken to correct the misunderstandings of some countries and groups under the influence of Chinese propaganda regarding the treatment of Uyghurs in East Turkestan,” he told RFA, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang.
“We ask the international community to reject China’s narrative on Uyghurs and take meaningful actions to stop the ongoing Uyghur genocide,” Isa said.