Untangling China’s Influence Operations in Italy
At the end of March, the Italian parliamentary intelligence committee (Copasir) warned about foreign interference in the time of coronavirus. Enrico Borghi, a committee member of the Democratic Party, said the main targets in Europe of the “infodemic” were the two countries hit hardest by the pandemic, Italy and Spain.
Four months earlier, in December, Copasir said that Italy should consider preventing Chinese telecoms firms Huawei and ZTE from taking part in the development of 5G networks. On March 15, Huawei offered its help to support institutions, healthcare, personnel, and citizens. “We are close to Italy at this moment and work with carriers and partners to support the country’s effort,” said Ceo Thomas Miao. Huawei also offered “to facilitate the exchange of information and good practices between Italian and Chinese health teams through its Welink cloud collaboration platform.”
Huawei's offer has raised concerns in particular after the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, announced a new “Health Silk Road” with Italy in a phone call in mid-March with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, before the arrival of a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Milan full of medical aid.
The move has provoked concern in Brussels, with Anna Bonfrisco MEP writing to the European Commission to warn that as part of the plans, China may be “seeking to acquire health and technological data” from EU citizens. Bonfrisco told Euractiv that “protecting electronic health information is crucial in order to respect people’s life and privacy.” She added that “citizens need to stay the ultimate owner of their own health data, sharing them in a secure way with the government. In China this is not the case; the Chinese government owns citizens’ lives.”
In the meantime, Chinese propaganda keeps hitting Italy hard. The Chinese Communist Party has mounted a huge campaign around the dispatch of medical aid and personnel, depicting China as Italy’s savior. On Twitter (admittedly a small slice of Italy’s social media landscape), the mobilization was a great success, with thousands of posts celebrating China’s solidarity. Yet, not all of this was created by a human hand.
Nearly half of the tweets (46.3%) published between March 11 and 23 with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy) and more than one third (37.1%) of those with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China) came from bots, according to analysis for Formiche by Alkemy, a digital marketing company, with help from Deweave, a data-mining company, the Luiss School of Government Data Lab, and Catchy, a big data analysis startup. Luca Tacchetti, Alice Andreuzzi, Nicola Piras, Alessandra Spada, and Stefano Vacca were part of the team
On March 12, a China Eastern Airbus A-350 from Shanghai landed in Rome. Onboard were nine Chinese doctors from Hubei, the province containing Wuhan, the center of the COVID-19 outbreak, along with 30 tons of medical supplies. Before and after the arrival of aid from China, the Chinese embassy in Rome’s Twitter account greeted the operation using the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia, which was met with unprecedented traction.
It is no coincidence. The Formiche report reveals analyzing 47,821 tweets published between March 11 and 23. Figures regarding the Chinese embassy’s Twitter account engagement and the tweets greeting the solidarity mission show a well-thought-out and coordinated information operation. Bots were identified according to the following criteria.
Activity: An average of more than 50 tweets per day, the most active reaching 91.2 tweets per day.
Timezone: Accounts tweeted propaganda messages uninterruptedly, all day long.
Political affiliation: Accounts were favorable to the Chinese intervention.
Handle: Combined letters and numbers.
Silence: Some of the accounts had been dormant for long periods.
Chinese aid was not the only subject of the Twitter echo-chamber. Many of the inorganic tweets dealt with EU issues, using hashtags such as #Lagarde, #EU, #Europe but also #shame. Moreover, many were found to spread fake news, such as the now-debunked video showing Italian citizens chanting “Thank you China” from their windows. This also appeared on the Twitter account of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunyinh.
The massive wave of bots that came into action to spread propaganda over China’s aid to Italy shows a well-directed operation. It seems to confirm the suspicions of Copasir, the parliamentary intelligence committee.
Brando Benifei, head of the delegation of the Italian Democratic Party to the European Parliament, told Formiche. “While we are dealing with the coronavirus crisis, forces are denigrating in an organized manner the action of the European Union, in pursuit of their own interests. That is also why it is essential to find a common answer to the COVID-19 challenge, to avoid giving reasons to methods and propaganda messages of this kind.”
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy, told Formiche: “China is engaged in a sympathy and soft power operation to make people forget that the coronavirus has spread around the world due to the delays of the Chinese authorities...the ability to send relief to the rest of the world also becomes a strong tool for expanding its sphere of influence, and China is doing it with determination. I consider the Silk Road a potential threat that we need to watch carefully.”