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Why have attempts to debunk Russian war propaganda on Weibo failed?

China state-fund media outlet Global Times followed its Russian counterpart in distributing the fabricated report on Ukraine President Zelensky's escape. Image curated from screenshot of Austin Ramzy's tweet.

Discussions on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, turned to international affairs after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees asserting the independence of two Ukraine provinces on February 21. A number of foreign government representatives began using the platform to state their stands and express their concerns.

In an attempt to debunk Russian pro-war propaganda circulating on Chinese social media, the China office of the European Commission (EU China) began debunking fake news on Weibo on March 4. However, the effort has had very little effect.

The European Union announced the ban on Russia state-funded media outlets Russian Today (RT) and Sputnik on March 2, 2022, as a response to the “toxic lies justifying Putin’s war,” as described by EU president von der Leyen. 

While the western world is getting aware of the Russian war propaganda, fake news portraying the Ukrainian government as terrorists and Nazi supporters has continued circulating in the Chinese speaking world through mainland Chinese media outlets which heavily rely on RT and Sputnik as main sources of information on the Ukraine crisis.

The way the China state media followed its Russian counterpart in spreading fake news has raised many's eyebrows on Twitter. New York Times’ journalist Austin Ramzy mocked at Global Times’ copying of Sputnik's reports on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's escape:

Another New York Times columnist Li Yuan also highlighted how the public perception in China has embraced the Russian narrative that the war is against the so-called “Ukrainian fascism”:

As Chinese netizens have followed the Ukraine crisis closely on Weibo, EU China took the opportunity to start posting Chinese FactCheck reports regarding the Ukraine crisis using hashtags #globaltalks (#共話全球), #misinformation (#虛假訊息), #factcheck (#事實核查) and #standwithUkraine (#支持烏克蘭).

Thus far there are six false claims that EU China has addressed through its Weibo account:

  1. Ukraine is planning a series of terrorist attacks in Donbas and Russia (that would kill and injure many civilians).
  2. Ukraine is committing genocide against the Russian speaking population in the eastern region.
  3. The Ukrainian military is committing atrocities in Donbas.
  4. The crisis is caused by Ukraine’s western alliance which supports its aggressive military action. Russia is defending its legitimate interest and is not responsible for the conflict.
  5. The crisis is caused by NATO and the West, if they promise not to extend their influence, Russia would not feel threatened. 
  6. As a result of NATO’s expansion, Russia is surrounded by enemies and hence needs to defend itself. 

Yet, the FactCheck reports have only attracted a large number of attacks. The most popular comments in the thread attacked the description of human rights abuse in Xinjiang as Uyghur genocide by western countries. For example, the following comment has more than 10,000 likes:

你们在中国新疆制造假新闻,还在中国社交媒体散布不实信息竟然为纳粹政权辩护,我替你们设计了一面新旗帜

You people have fabricated news about Xinjiang and now spread misinformation on Chinese social media to defend a Nazi government, I designed a new flag for you. 

This Chinese netizen has put the Nazi icon at the middle of the European star-ring flag.

It is noteworthy that on March 3, the Chinese propaganda authorities handed down instructions to “turn down the temperature on public sentiment toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict” (via China Digital Times). Specifically, online platforms were asked to remove content that challenge the Chinese government's official statements and foreign policy stances, in light of Sino-Russian antagonism among other harmful content such as public anti-war declarations.

It is obvious that the Chinese netizens’ reactions to EU China’s FactCheck reports are in alignment with the Chinese government’s official stand, which claimed on March 4 that the US is the source of disinformation on the Ukraine crisis:

In fact, since the beginning of the war, Chinese state-funded media outlets have blamed NATO for Russian aggression, as highlighted by Consul General of China in Belfast Zhang Maifang on Twitter:

In addition to the official narratives, more popular explanations of the Ukraine crisis have circulated on Chinese social media, such as the following viral love triangle plot:

二十年前乌克兰与前夫(俄罗斯)离婚,几个孩子归乌克兰,前夫对她也很够意思,给了不少钱和不少地盘。之后前夫俄罗斯还替她还清了两千多亿的债务。摆脱了前夫她开始与恶棍(漂亮国)以及一些西方国家眉来眼去!这倒也罢,她居然联合漂亮国以及一些西方国家对前夫展开围攻。前夫肯定非常生气,于是硬抢回一个孩子~克罗米亚!于是她开始怀恨,想嫁给北约家族,仗势打压前夫。然而恶棍漂亮国并不想娶她,只是玩弄她感情,只想利用她来欺负她前夫。她还经常对另外两个孩子(卢干斯克和顿涅茨克)动不动就拳脚相加,逼得这两个孩子天天哭着找爹诉苦。…前夫忍无可忍,终于忍不住了带着武器装备找上门去…

Twenty years ago, former Ukraine divorced her former husband (Russia). Their kids were under the care of Ukraine. The former husband gave her a lot of money, land and cleared billions of her debts. However, Ukraine started hanging around and flirting with a thug (the beautiful country [the U.S]) and some other western countries. What’s worse, she collaborated with them to attack her former husband. The former husband was very angry and took back one of their kids – Crimea! She was resentful and wanted to marry NATO to bully her former husband. But the beautiful thug did not want to marry her but wanted to use her to bully her former husband. She also beat up her two other kids (Luhansk and Donbas), they cried in front of their dad… the former husband could not stand anymore and knocked at the door of his former wife with weapons in his hand… 

This love triangle analogy, which cannot be debunked by fact-checking, as is very appealing to those who are apolitical and have a conservative mindset.  The comparison, which justifies both the Russian invasion and violence against women, only triggered an online uproar after some pro-Beijing opinion leaders exported it to Hong Kong.

In such a manipulated information environment, initiatives to open up a genuine global dialogue on Weibo is still an impossible dream.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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