Information Bedlam: Russian and Chinese Information Operations During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping walk down the stairs as they arrive for a BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil November 14, 2019.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping walk down the stairs as they arrive for a BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil November 14, 2019.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The covid-19 public health crisis involves more than a fight against the coronavirus. It has prompted an information war in which the United States and its allies are losing ground to adversaries, particularly Russia and China. While the pandemic enables disruption of the information environment, it also presents a research opportunity. Based on a literature review through January 2021, evaluated at an expert seminar, this policy brief provides a baseline analysis of changing tactics, narratives, and distribution strategies in Russian and Chinese information operations (IOs) relating to the covid-19 pandemic.

Key findings:

  • China copied Russia’s tactics, spreading disinformation globally for the first time, particularly on the virus’s origins. But it lacks Russia’s skillset;
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turned to destructive and conspiratorial narratives in an attempt to blunt criticism of its initial failure to contain covid-19;
  • China’s previous approach built economic ties and influence with political elites, whereas Russia’s lies and disruption targeted broader public opinion;1
  • Russia’s approach evolved little; it recycled previous narratives, spreading a broad range of covid-19 disinformation;
  • Evidence supports the theory that Russia seeks to strengthen itself in relative terms by weakening the West, while China seeks to strengthen itself in absolute terms;
  • Collaboration agreements between state media and circular amplification of narratives during the pandemic do not (yet) amount to evidence of strategic Sino-Russian coordination; and
  • Covid-19 disinformation has not only hampered public health provision, it makes societies more vulnerable to future IOs.

RUSSIAN AND CHINESE INFORMATION OPERATIONS BEFORE COVID-19

Russia

Russia’s strategic aim is to undermine the foundations of the liberal democratic order by delegitimizing the United States as a credible partner, intensifying divisions within the transatlantic alliance, and eroding public support for values and institutions.2 Its approach is confrontational, destructive, and often clandestine.

Since 2014, Russia conducted social media manipulation campaigns in at least 70 countries in seven languages across 300 platforms and web forums, marking a continued increase in sophistication and intensity.3 Tactics include concealing, disguising, coopting, penetrating, and manipulating.4 Spreading conspiracy theories muddles the information environment and undermines public confidence in the nature of truth.5 Local proxies help Russia exploit social tensions and obfuscate the origins of its disinformation. Local proxies' existence also hampers regulation by raising freedom of speech concerns.6 The Kremlin mainly relies on Western social media platforms, whereas China can also use its own platforms that are subject to control from Beijing.7 While geopolitical success attracts the attention of others, China was slow to converge with Russia’s aggressive Information Operation (IO) tactics before COVID-19.

China

Before 2020, China’s IOs were more subtle, patient, and risk-averse than Russia’s, even though Chinese President Xi Jinping brought a more aggressive approach to Chinese foreign policy.8 The CCP started spreading disinformation on social media outside of mainland China as early as 2017, but this focused on elites, building a positive image of China and creating a consistent narrative.9 Global influence campaigns included promoting favorable content through state media outlets and cultivating or purchasing foreign outlets as proxies.10

Prior to the pandemic, Chinese disinformation focused on hot-button issues that impacted the CCP’s core claims to legitimacy: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet.11 In 2018, China used disinformation to interfere in Taiwan’s legislative elections, apparently benefiting the pro-Beijing opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).12 Chinese embassies and ambassadors began opening social media accounts on Western platforms in 2019 during the protests in Hong Kong, against a bill proposed by the government that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, a trend that continued into 2021.13

Notable Differences 

  • China’s IO campaigns seek to protect its own national image, having more focused objectives, while Russia pursues destabilization and takedowns of other countries. As China amplified similar COVID-19 narratives throughout the pandemic, Russian COVID-19 narratives shifted and became less prominent as the Kremlin started to focus on new themes.14
  • In 2020, half of English-language Chinese state media reporting was about China, while only 5% of Russian English-language state media reporting focused on Russia. Despite subsequent changes (see below), these statistics confirm that Russia sought to strengthen itself in relative terms by weakening the West, while China sought to strengthen itself in absolute terms.15
  • China was confident whereas Russia doubted its soft power. China had its own strengths in the media and information space and already owned five of the six most-followed news pages on Facebook.16 China inserted content into mainstream foreign publications whereas Russia largely influenced the information environment through social media, fringe proxies, and its own media outlets.17
  • Russia’s IOs were more confrontational, while China’s were more under-the-radar.18 The Kremlin was willing to live with the consequences of interfering in elections and spreading disinformation. China acted more cautiously with the hope that building influence in a less overt and disruptive manner would bring future benefits.
  • Unlike the Kremlin, the CCP relied more on suppressing negative information, both domestically through its censors, and overseas through the growing Chinese media presence, companies’ dependence on the Chinese market, covert funding of think tanks and universities, as well as links with political elites.19
  • During the pandemic, experts have witnessed significant convergence between the two state actors with China spreading mutually contradictory conspiracy theories and Russia further closing its information space. This convergence continued into 2022, even as Russia pivoted from COVID-19-related disinformation to focus on the war in Ukraine.20
Photo: Polish healthcare workers put on their PPE during a mass nationwide testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zilina, Slovakia, January 23, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa

Photo: Polish healthcare workers put on their PPE during a mass nationwide testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zilina, Slovakia, January 23, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa

THE COVID-19 EXPERIMENT

Russia’s approach to disinformation evolved more slowly than as China’s. But its success has inspired other actors to use the Russian playbook. In 2020, China’s IO tactics converged with Russia’s “firehose of falsehoods” model, including spreading multiple conflicting conspiracy theories to undermine people’s trust in facts.21 For the first time, China actively spread disinformation on a global scale, partially with diplomats’ increased use of Western social media.22 But Kremlin-sponsored content receives substantially more engagement, reflecting Russia’s better understanding of Western political dynamics.16 This provided China with a ready-to-use tool kit that complements its own strengths.

Russian Narratives

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian disinformation has recycled many anti-Western narratives from previous crises. Russia has spent decades studying loopholes, vulnerabilities, and societal divisions in the West. Disinformation builds off of existing master narratives that Russia advances such as NATO’s nefarious role, the EU’s incompetence and decay, democracies’ failure to deal with crises, and endemic Western Russophobia. With time, conspiracies build upon each other and prime target audiences for ever more disinformation.

COVID-19 as a Western bioweapon

Prior to the World Health Organization (WHO) labeling the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic in 2020, a Russian state outlet declared that the virus that causes the disease was designed in NATO labs.23  Since then, allegations that the United States created the covid-19 virus received the largest social media engagement.24 This echoed Operation Denver, the Soviet KGB's attempt in the 1980s to blame the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the United States.25 Russia revived narratives that tied military laboratories and U.S. troops to the outbreak of COVID-19, including accusations that a U.S.-led military exercise helped spread the virus.26 This disinformation particularly affected the largest Western democracies and countries on Russia’s periphery.27 Special targets were Ukraine and Georgia, where Russian media outlets sought to infiltrate the information environment with pro-Kremlin and anti-Western narratives.28

The failure of the West’s response to the pandemic

Russia also spread propaganda and disinformation criticizing the West’s response to the pandemic, including prophesying an imminent collapse of Schengen, NATO, and the EU.29 An underlying, sometimes overt theme, was that authoritarian governments can more effectively control the virus than democracies, which are inherently weak.30 China and Russia used the Capt. Crozier incident — the firing of the commanding officer of a US aircraft carrier after he raised the alarm about a COVID-19 outbreak on his ship — as a prime example of the failings of US public administration.31

Medical solidarity

At the start of the pandemic, the European Union (EU) banned the export of medical supplies and EU member states reimposed border controls.32 Legitimate criticism of this soon turned to disinformation. Russian media praised its own aid to the Western Balkans and countries within the EU even though the Italian newspaper La Stampa discovered that most of the equipment was purchased as normal exports — not received as aid — and that it was mostly faulty.33 A Russian senator played up historical Russian-Polish animosity to push a false story that Poland had refused Russian access to Polish airspace while Russia attempted to send humanitarian supplies to Italy.34 Humanitarian aid from Russia was also used as a front for an intelligence gathering operation and was used to spread propaganda in Italy as GRU (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) operatives were on the ground and Russian media promoted gratitude from Italians. 35 Sputnik Italia amplified the disinformation and the narrative received more than three million Twitter impressions.19  The distribution of narratives differed depending on the target country. In the Balkans, where public opinion is largely supportive of EU accession, Russian media falsely showed Italians replacing EU flags with Russian flags.36

COVID-19 anti-vaccine narratives

Russian vaccine disinformation appeared as early as January 2020 after a decade-long effort to cultivate relationships with anti-vaccine campaigners and promote health disinformation.37 Some of the most prolific vaccine disinformation came from a Russian-backed separatist group in Ukraine which claimed that vaccine tests from US-based Moderna killed five Ukrainians.38 This disinformation reached 14 million people by targeting both right-wing and left-wing vaccine skeptics.39

In August 2020, Russia announced that it had developed Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, though safety concerns had not been addressed through internationally accepted standards and trials.40 A state-backed disinformation campaign argued that it was the world’s only safe option.39 Russia was betting that even if the vaccine fails, it would still receive a short-term soft-power victory with non-allies like Mexico and Brazil signing up to buy the vaccine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel considering producing the vaccine in the EU.41 Even though Russia did not join COVAX, it also criticized the United States for being irresponsible for not initially joining the multilateral effort under the Trump administration.42

Russia advertised the Sputnik V vaccine as a “vaccine for humankind” that was the most efficient and cost-effective vaccine in the world. In October 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that this vaccine was approved by 70 countries and was supplied to more than 50. Putin also assured that Russia would provide COVID-19 test kits and reagents free of charge. This vaccine diplomacy is part of the greater campaign to elevate Russia’s status as an international player and partner. The Kremlin prioritized promotion of Sputnik V internationally, rather than vaccinating Russians domestically, as a tool of information warfare against the West. The early registration of the vaccine prior to international protocols had a two-pronged strategy. First it was meant to shock the world with premature vaccine registration, which would provoke criticism and present Russia as a victim of Western Russophobia. Then Russia expected to receive positive reviews as validation of its scientific prowess.43  However, while the vaccine was approved by some regulatory bodies, many countries discontinued its use amid safety concerns and delays in delivery caused anger.44 

Engaging with anti-vaccine activists while, yet simultaneously promoting its own vaccine, exemplifies Russia’s embrace of contradictory conspiracy theories. Forfeiting a singular narrative allows the Kremlin to target a larger population.45 The virus is simultaneously presented as a plague and a hoax, leading to responses that incite panic, fake cures, and conspiracies about 5G towers all at the same time.46  While this approach is helpful for sowing discord, it can also backfire. For example, a Russian disinformation campaign to undermine Western vaccines has had a spillover effect, contributing to vaccine hesitancy among the Russian population.47 

Russian Tactics, Distribution Strategies, and Target Audiences

The pandemic enabled the Kremlin to entrench control over the information environment. While Russia’s IO tactics did not change as noticeably as China’s, the Kremlin continued refining existing tactics, particularly on how to blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate sources and obfuscate reliable information. Overseas, Russian IOs advanced geopolitical goals. Russia presented different narratives to its own citizens. While Russian state broadcasters demanded the use of face masks and vaccines to its domestic audiences, they criticized these precautions on the international stage.48 

Suppression and surveillance

The Russian government used the pandemic to suppress information about the virus and targeted doctors who criticized the government.49 With technology bought from China, Russian authorities expanded digital surveillance capabilities and tested the use of facial recognition and QR codes for quarantine control.50 Prior to 2022, Russia’s information space was more open than China’s, Russia though it had been inspired by China’s model of closed internet standards and cyber sovereignty — promoting international norms that recognize a country’s right to tight control over its internet and censorship of political content.51 Since the war in Ukraine, the “sovereign internet” has made significant advances with the Kremlin creating a near monopoly on the control of information inside Russia, but the groundwork has been in place for years and was advanced during the pandemic.52

Use of proxies

Russian tactics include using proxies and impersonating real organizations.53 Russian media amplified statements by Italian politicians praising Russian medical equipment.34 In Ukraine, proxies spread panic about evacuees returning from China.54 This led to violent protests and a governor’s resignation.55 In another example, 20 journalists worldwide learned they had unwittingly become writers for a Russian-backed outlet called Peace Data (the name is a pun on a Russian obscenity) which was posing as a real media outlet.56 In France, researchers discovered websites of GRU front organizations spreading COVID-19 disinformation,57  though the average viewer may not have noticed the Russian links.55 In May 2021, social media influencers in France and Germany reported that a London-based group, controlled from Moscow, offered to pay them to spread disinformation about the Pfizer vaccine.58  Pro-Kremlin outlets have also copied text from other sources to avoid language and grammatical mistakes, while using fewer hashtags to avoid detection by natural language processing systems, and blurring or removing watermarks.59

Many websites in the pro-Kremlin information environment receive limited engagement, their content is still amplified by more popular sites. This makes it challenging to trace disinformation to its source. While Twitter has prohibited Russian-affiliated media from amplifying tweets, verified Russian government accounts continue to post with very few restrictions. Through a Twitter loophole, more than 100 Russian government accounts promote conspiracy theories and disinformation through an intricate retweet network. On Twitter, 1% of Russian disinformation accounts tweeted more than 35% of shared tweets.60  Russian disinformation usually already spreads on fringe websites and in online alt-right circles and is subsequently amplified by government-backed outlets.61

Targeted approach

Russia also used diverse tactics and distribution strategies. In countries where Russian is widely spoken, the Kremlin spread its disinformation through Russian-language TV and proxies like the Russian Orthodox Church.62 Across Europe, Russia also used its local-language TV channels to spread disinformation. During the German federal elections in September 2021, RT Deutsch spread vaccine-related disinformation; the outlet was banned in February 2022. For elderly populations, Russia focused on chain emails instead of social media.63 In the Middle East and Latin America, because Russia wants citizens to view RT as a legitimate news source, it spreads disinformation through Sputnik Mundo and News Front-Español.64 During the COVID-19 pandemic, RT en Español has remained largely neutral, sometimes even critical of Russia and China.65 The EU’s March 2022 decision to ban RT following the invasion of Ukraine may have a profound impact on Russia’s ability to promote disinformation among targeted audiences for years to come.66

Narrative laundering

Throughout the pandemic, Russia has consistently tied COVID-19 IOs to its geopolitical goals, particularly regarding Western sanctions and the Kremlin’s interests in Russia’s near abroad. Russia argued that Western sanctions were inhumane, and its foreign ministry spokesperson even said that sanctions on Venezuela were approaching genocide.67

As noted above, Ukraine and Georgia have traditionally been testing grounds for Russian hybrid warfare and the pandemic was no exception. Even before the current war, Russia incited violent protests and used organic COVID-19-related protests to portray western Ukrainians as particularly violent and ignorant, in an effort to reduce Ukraine’s maneuverability in peace talks over the conflict in Donbas.68 In the Caucasus, Russian media falsely accused Georgia of exploiting the pandemic to violate the South Ossetian border with EU support.69 Farther afield, Russian outlets amplified narratives already circulating in the West that Syrian relief groups like the White Helmets were using the pandemic to accelerate regime change.70 The Kremlin is particularly adept at amplifying disinformation already circulating in the West. This blurs the lines between foreign and domestic disinformation. Russia had at least some short-term geopolitical success with polls from June 2020 finding that most Serbs falsely believed Russia delivered more aid to their country than the EU.71

Chinese Narratives

The pandemic has put the CCP in a vulnerable position, forcing a turn to more destructive and conspiratorial narratives in an attempt to change global opinion about China’s initial failure to contain COVID-19.72 State media and government officials spread disinformation about the origins of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, and have continued since. Once China successfully contained the virus within its borders, its propaganda focused on vindicating it’s draconian approach while criticizing the West for its failed response. Finally, China amplified stories about its international leadership, including collaboration with the WHO and sending shipments of medical assistance to hard-hit countries. The underlying narrative was that China’s governance model is more effective than the West’s.73

Photo: Workers unload a shipment of Chinese Sinopharm's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as it arrives at Budapest Airport, Hungary, February 16, 2021. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM)/Handout via REUTERS

Photo: Workers unload a shipment of Chinese Sinopharm's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as it arrives at Budapest Airport, Hungary, February 16, 2021. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM)/Handout via REUTERS

The origins of the virus

Early in the pandemic, China began to shift blame away from itself, removing any mention of #Wuhan in the government’s Twitter posts about the virus.74 Chinese media started mentioning a now-deleted Japanese TV report arguing that COVID-19 might have been present in the United States in 2019.75 Further outsourcing blame, China has called on the WHO to look into other countries, such as the United States, as possible origins of the pandemic.76  On March 12, 2020 Zhao Lijian, the spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, retweeted a video which argued that the US military could have brought COVID-19 to Wuhan during the 2019 World Military Games.77 Chinese think tanks blamed U.S. military bioweapons labs for the origins of the virus.18 After the Biden administration instructed the US intelligence community to provide a more conclusive report on the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab in 2021, the CCP stepped up its efforts to spread conspiracies about the virus’s origins, including recirculating disinformation from early in the pandemic about Fort Detrick, a US military lab.78  While not recycled to the same extent as Russia’s, these tactics have a history: Mao Zedong blamed the United States for spreading viruses during the Korean War.79

In October 2020, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Prague stated, “China was the first country to report the epidemic, but that does not mean that the epidemic originated in China.”80  Official Chinese outlets continued to spread disinformation that the virus appeared in many countries before China.77

China’s success in containing the virus

China’s narratives around the virus followed the common theme that democracy is messy, ineffective, and unable to address big challenges compared with authoritarian systems. In praising its own response to the pandemic, the CCP wanted the world to believe that China’s official data was accurate and transparent, that the outbreak was under control, and that the country could serve as a model.81 To gain legitimacy, Chinese media amplified positive comments from Western leaders like former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin who said that the Chinese government “has manifested extremely effective organization and mobilization ability, which is exactly the advantage of the Chinese system.”82

Like other Chinese narratives about its response to the virus, there was usually a mixture of potentially truthful propaganda and disinformation. In February 2020, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, tweeted a photo of a hospital being constructed in 16 hours, but researchers discovered that the photo was in fact of an apartment building.83 By late February, “wolf warrior” diplomats - the term for the most aggressive and confrontational members of the Chinese foreign service - became increasingly critical, accusing the West of using COVID-19 as an excuse to contain China’s rise.84 In France, the Chinese Embassy called out French authorities for letting the elderly die in their nursing homes.85

Chinese mask diplomacy

To boost its image as an international leader, China sent doctors and medical equipment to other countries. Most Chinese reporting about this was disinformation since the majority of China’s aid was faulty or purchased as normal exports instead of given freely.86 Chinese media also made no distinction between assistance from the government and nominally private Chinese organizations.87 Chinese media and local embassies amplified praise from Europeans thanking China for its support with pro-China sentiment in Italy drastically increasing from 10% in January to 52% in March 2020. However, pro-China sentiment decreased as quickly as it increased in Italy; just a year later 60% of surveyed Italians had an unfavorable view of China.88 Like Russia, China criticized the EU for its initial ban on the export of medical equipment and the United States for its lack of support for the WHO.89

Chinese Tactics, Distribution Strategies, and Target Audiences

After its initial failure to contain the virus, the CCP quickly attempted to shift blame away from China with a coordinated global disinformation campaign by media and diplomats about the origins of COVID-19. Like Russia, China is using the pandemic for its geopolitical advantage, including the export of vaccines to the developing world. 

Information suppression

Disinformation frequently starts at home, and as early as December 30, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a gag order on COVID-19-related topics.90 For the first month of the pandemic, there was virtually no reporting from Chinese media about the outbreak due to tight control from the CCP and schedules for editors to publish articles on certain topics.91 Before Xi’s first public remarks about the virus on January 21, 2020, state media focused on the U.S. flu outbreak instead of COVID-19.92 Once the coronavirus went global, the Chinese government rigorously censored international criticism of China while allowing screenshots of inflammatory tweets from Zhao, the spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others to filter downward in the domestic information environment.93 The CCP has also punished approximately 600 Chinese citizens for content that they posted about COVID-19 and have investigated more than 17,000 people.94  Censorship is not always done directly by the state. Chinese platforms often performed self-censorship because of intermediary liability rules.95  During Shanghai’s lockdown in April 2022, Chinese internet authorities tried to block footage of citizens discussing the dismal conditions of the lockdown.96 

Spreading conspiracies and denying facts

Contrary to its traditional focus on creating one narrative with total certainty, covid-19 prompted China to follow the Russian model of diluting the information environment, particularly to make people question the origins of the virus. After a fourfold increase in their Twitter presence since January 2019, Chinese diplomats conducted a coordinated campaign of complementing disinformation from the Chinese media. In total, Chinese diplomats operate 449 accounts on Twitter and Facebook and posted more than 950,000 times between June 2020 and February 2021.97  This coordinated blame-shifting campaign also worked in reverse. Chinese state media outlets amplified favorable narratives, including Zhao’s tweetS about the US origins of the virus, which he continued to push throughout 2021.98 Chinese diplomats have continued working closely with state media to float new theories on the origins of COVID-19. To add a veneer of legitimacy, China has frequently taken words out of context from respected scientists such as Dr. Robert Redfield who was the Director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Alexander Kekulé at the German Institute for Biosecurity Research.99 Dr. Anthony Fauci, the current chief medical adviser to US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has also come under criticism from Chinese state media after he discussed the origin of the COVID-19 virus.100  The CCP has also amplified China’s own scientists. In November 2020, scientists affiliated with the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences published a paper claiming that Wuhan was not the first place where COVID-19 transmission occurred.70 China’s wolf warrior diplomats have used doctored images to attack those that have criticized this disinformation, particularly in Australia.101

Covert digital operations

While still relatively rudimentary, China has used inauthentic social media accounts to amplify positive messages about itself while spreading disinformation and harsh criticism about its adversaries. After China sent assistance to Italy in March 2020, Chinese bots amplified the hashtags #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China and Italy) and #grazieCina (Thanks China).102 Many of the inauthentic accounts also posted content praising Hong Kong’s leaders and criticizing protesters.103 In September 2020, an uptick in inauthentic videos showed that Chinese actors are not afraid to adopt new tactics.104 So far, most Chinese covert operations have had limited reach since they have been in Chinese and primarily targeted the Chinese diaspora.105 For the few that have also targeted non-Chinese speakers, they have been even less effective since they are targeting the diaspora and English-language audience with the same distracting material that either has English and Chinese subtitles or English narration.104 hile Chinese narratives may be less effective abroad, China has specifically targeted European states, such as Serbia and Italy, with public campaigns including billboards, paid trips, and editorial stories, that promote positive Chinese narratives.106  Distraction and creating confusion are also part of their operation. China inserts COVID-19 narratives into non-pandemic stories to try to gain relevance and traction. For example, the editor in chief of a China-state media affiliation posted about a mass shooting in the United States, tweeting that US citizens are massacred by both COVID-19 and firearms, and downplayed comparisons of the shooting to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.107 

Vaccine propaganda and geopolitical goals

China is has used the COVID-19 pandemic to secure geopolitical benefits, particularly through vaccines. It has tried to position itself as the supplier of first resort for developing countries that do not have the capacity to handle the cold storage requirements of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.108 Through this approach, China tried to use its distribution of vaccines to bolster economic and political influence in the developing world.109

As early as May 2020, Xi was promising to make China’s vaccines a global public good that would be distributed at a reasonable price.110 With the United States initially shying away from equitable global vaccine distribution efforts, China’s narrative of international leadership is attempted to portray China as the solution to COVID-19 instead of the problem and the source of the virus.111 China’s focus on the developing world, and Africa in particular, has not been limited to vaccines. Chinese embassies in Africa were the most likely to retweet disinformation about the US origins of the virus, potentially because China believes Africans are more vulnerable to health disinformation after the Soviets spread disinformation about HIV/AIDS.112

In order to improve transparency and counter a history of bribery and poor safety standards, Chinese vaccine makers Sinopharm and Sinovac conducted clinical trials in coordination with other governments.113 Not only do vaccines give China an important soft-power boost, but China is likely attaching strings to the purchases. Uyghur activists have been concerned that Turkish promises to step up counterterrorism cooperation along with vaccine purchases will endanger the large Uyghur community in Turkey.114 Other experts are particularly concerned that China will use the pandemic to advance its global governance ambitions through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).115 leaders, Xi mentioned his willingness to create a community of common public health destiny.116 Yet, the WHO has noted that it has “very low confidence” in both Sinopharm’s ability to prevent COVID-19 and the data that Sinopharm has provided.117 As of October 2021, poor COVID-19 testing results out of Brazil and low public confidence in Chinese vaccines show that the effectiveness of China’s vaccines, and the success of its vaccine diplomacy, is still an open question.118 Overall, China’s domestic COVID-19 vaccine development has been slow and Sinovac has not been effective at combatting the various COVID-19 variants such as Omicron.119  Despite weak vaccine performances, China refuses to grant approval to Pfizer-BioNTech.120 

Photo: A visitor stands near an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, Hubei province, China December 31, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Photo: A visitor stands near an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, Hubei province, China December 31, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Sino-Russian Overlap and Coordination

During the pandemic, researchers have noted several instances of narrative overlap between pro-Kremlin and CCP sources. Both actors borrowed various tactics from each other’s tool kit. There is, however, very little evidence to support the idea of policy coordination between Russia and China based on COVID-19 IOs. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Russian and Chinese officials have promoted each other's messages on social media and have reflected the same talking points.121 

The most explicit Sino-Russian cooperation in the information environment has been collaboration agreements between state media outlets.122 This collaboration has continued during the pandemic with a China Daily article in December 2020 stating, “Digital media from China and Russia should … jointly fight against attacks and provocations from Western countries, [and] establish a healthy international public opinion environment ….”123 In October 2020, foreign ministers from both countries called for strengthening media cooperation.124 This was further reinforced during the 2021 China-Russia Internet Media Forum, where the theme was “Promoting Exchanges and Mutual Learning, Deepening Practical Cooperation.”125  For several years, state media outlets in Russia and China have produced common messaging to counter Western influence and promote positive stories about themselves.126 In the long term, this exchange of best practices will deepen through mechanisms like the China-Russia Media Forum as both countries seek to create an alternative information ecosystem.18 State media in both countries can learn from the other; China has moved faster in using its media apparatus to export digital authoritarianism, while Russian media still receives substantially more engagement than China’s.127

From November 2019 to March 2021, two out of five of the most retweeted outlets by CCP-linked accounts were RT and Sputnik, which allowed for circular amplification of COVID-19 disinformation between Russia and China.128 While many Western countries and platforms have recently banned RT and Sputnik, the CCP still allows Russian media to operate in China and continues to promote Russian disinformation and propaganda.129  Some of China’s most inflammatory disinformation came from Global Research, a pro-Kremlin conspiracy site.130 China latched on to the Russian narrative that the Lugar Center in Georgia, which Russia falsely claims is operated by the US Biological Threat Reduction Program, is part of a secret US bioweapons program.131 Pro-Kremlin media has been largely positive about China, and even though Chinese media sharply criticized the U.S. border closure to Chinese travelers, Russian authorities received little criticism from China when they closed their border.132 While China’s global public image has been damaged during the course of the pandemic, 133 Sino-Russian relations continued to grow, most notably when Putin and Xi met at the opening ceremony for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, releasing a 5,000-word joint statement on their shared view of the world.134  However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since then has complicated the relationship, with China trying to position itself as a neutral arbiter of peace while Russia is requesting military aid from Beijing. At the time of writing, it is unclear which direction China will head. 

COVID-19 meta-narratives have also been relatively similar: both Russia and China have criticized democracies as corrupt and inept while praising their own global leadership and pointing to a lack of Western leadership. ((Bright, “Coronavirus Coverage”)) Circular amplification and state media collaboration agreements come from the mutual interests driving Russian and Chinese digital information operations.18 Their complementary geopolitical objectives include undermining liberal democratic norms and institutions, weakening cohesion among democratic allies and partners, reducing US global influence, and advancing their own interests.55 Both countries want a decoupling of the United States and Europe, and they share many of the same political assets in Hungary, Serbia, and the Czech Republic.135 During the pandemic, China joined Russia in calling sanctions on Russia inhumane as a result of the virus.136 Russia and China also accused the West of hoarding vaccination shots while Chinese companies pledged to produce more than 260 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for developing countries.137  Moscow and Beijing’s vaccine cooperation and solidarity further pushes a narrative that the West is selfish and that Russia and China are serving a global public good.138 

Nuances in COVID-19 narratives show that the threat of Sino-Russian IO cooperation is serious, but important differences between the two countries will persist. China placed a much greater emphasis on promoting a shared community and had a larger focus on its global responsibility than Russia.135 Normative affinity often makes it appear that Russia and China have a coordinated approach, even if in function that is not the case.55 For the foreseeable future, divergent geopolitical outlooks will likely prevent China from acting as aggressively as Russia in the information environment. The beginning of the pandemic provided a prime example, with Russian actors overtly spreading disinformation in January 2020 before China.130 The long-term geopolitical implications of the war in Ukraine, which are yet to be seen, and the position that Russia and China take coming out of the conflict will have a profound impact on their geopolitical objectives and their approach to information warfare

IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCHERS AND POLICYMAKERS

Lessons Learned

Research on Russian and Chinese covid-19 disinformation has uncovered important details about the evolution of malign narratives and tactics. However, important questions regarding definitions and the significance of the covid-19 infodemic remain.

  • The focus on emerging areas of research is too limited. More attention is needed on deepfakes, crowdfunding platforms, as well as machine learning and natural language processing systems;139
  • Researchers concentrate too much on distribution instead of sources. The intentionality and strategic use of disinformation or propaganda narratives also remains underexplored;135
  • China’s party-state is surprisingly transparent about its goals. Researchers need to examine CCP documents and look beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;11
  • The failure to track, catalogue, and analyze disinformation campaigns in local languages is a significant weakness. Content moderation by social media platforms is consistently weaker in non-English-speaking countries;140
  • The combined use of different avenues of influence, not just disinformation, remains underexplored. Russia and China have utilized off- and online tools;
  • Researchers underexplored vaccine disinformation for most of 2020 and largely focused on Russia instead of China. In 2021, China has aggressively criticized Western vaccines, particularly Pfizer-BioNTech;141
  • Until we understand the long-term impact of infodemics and prioritize accordingly, we risk embarking on a wild-goose chase;135 and
  • While significant overlap was present during covid-19 IOs, the extent and trajectory of Sino-Russian convergence or collaboration is still unclear.

Policy Relevance

  • For liberal democracies, the free flow of information is a strength and a weakness. It is also a target: for the regimes in Russia and China, the existence of open societies is an existential threat.142 For all these reasons, infodemics will still feature in authoritarian toolkits even when the pandemic abates;
  • Disinformation has a direct effect — in the case of covid-19, hampering public health provision — but it also has an indirect effect, weakening trust and cohesion and thus making societies more vulnerable to future IOs.29 Russia has already weaponized this dangerous feedback loop to divide and weaken societies. China could do the same;
  • If China is able to shift blame for the pandemic, the world may see only a success story instead of the failures of its authoritarian system which allowed the virus to spread so rapidly in the first place;
  • With China’s IO tactics increasingly converging with Russia’s playbook, it has never been more important to bring Russia, China, and disinformation experts together. An implicit division of labor and circular amplification of covid-19 disinformation could soon lead to explicit cooperation; and
  • In a previously clear implicit division of labor, Russia focused on security and energy, while China exploited its advantages in telecommunications and infrastructure. China’s rise is changing this, notably in Central and Eastern Europe. This, along with competitive vaccine diplomacy, could add tension to the Sino-Russian relationship and present Western policymakers with opportunities.

CONCLUSION

Countering Russian and Chinese IOs will require a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach across the transatlantic space. This includes civil society, media organizations, social media platforms, think tanks, and government agencies. Western countermeasures are still limited, while the threat is grave. It is time to stop admiring the problem.

This report was originally published on 15 March 2021, and has been updated as part of an ongoing project on Russian and Chinese disinformation operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read the original report here.

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