CCP ran COVID-19 propaganda, censorship campaign online, report says
A new study reinforces claims that the Chinese government not only lacked transparency at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but also misled other nations by downplaying the virus’s severity with a coordinated online propaganda operation launched in early January 2020 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The December 2020 report by The New York Times newspaper and ProPublica, an independent news organization, supports allegations that the CCP’s misinformation activities hindered other nations’ preparations for the virus’s spread within their borders and increased the human and other costs.
By the end of December 2020, COVID-19 had infected nearly 83 million people around the world and killed more than 1.8 million, including more than 342,000 in the United States, Johns Hopkins University reported.
As early as the first week of January 2020, the CCP’s central internet censorship agency, the Cyberspace Administration of China, worked to control the coronavirus narrative domestically and worldwide, according to the report. For example, the agency ordered Chinese news websites to “use only government-published material and not to draw any parallels with the deadly SARS outbreak in China and elsewhere that began in 2002, even as the World Health Organization was noting the similarities.”
The co-authors based their analysis on over 3,200 directives, 1,800 official memos and files from Urun Big Data Services, which were obtained by the hacker group CCP Unmasked and the China Digital Times, a watchdog website. Urun is a Chinese company that makes software to monitor citizens’ online activity.
The documents also confirmed claims that the Chinese government aggressively concealed its activities early on to purchase huge quantities of medical supplies and protective gear from other countries for fear that its activities, if known, “could cause a backlash overseas and disrupt China’s procurement efforts.”
The CCP relied on hundreds of thousands of Chinese government employees, volunteers, university students and teachers and other online soldiers, known as the 50 Cent Army, to conduct the propaganda campaign across media and internet platforms, the report said.
“To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices,” the report found.
“Though China makes no secret of its belief in rigid internet controls, the documents convey just how much behind-the-scenes effort is involved in maintaining a tight grip. It takes an enormous bureaucracy, armies of people, specialized technology made by private contractors, the constant monitoring of digital news outlets and social media platforms — and, presumably, lots of money,” the report said.
“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources. It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale,” Xiao Qiang, China Digital Times founder, told the co-authors. “This is a huge thing. No other country has that.”
CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping directly coordinated the propaganda campaign, according to the report. After he led an early February meeting on the operation, for example, the Cyberspace Administration of China, which Xi created in 2014, was directed to “actively influence international opinion” as well as domestic opinion, the report said.
Xi presumably knew about the emerging COVID-19 crisis at least as early as December 31, 2019, when Chinese health authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO), although Xi first publicly acknowledged the epidemic in a January 20, 2020, statement.
Xi met with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on January 28, 2020, telling him he “personally directed” the government’s response, The New York Times reported in February 2020. However, state media later backpedaled, claiming Xi’s government was “collectively directing” its response.
The December 2020 study by the newspaper and ProPublica also supports the findings of a June 2020 U.S. intelligence report that CCP officials hid important information from the world. “The report says senior officials in Beijing, even as they were scrambling to pry data from officials in central China, played a role in obscuring the outbreak by withholding information from the World Health Organization,” The New York Times reported in August 2020.