Beijing is trying to use Western social media such as Twitter and YouTube to more subtly spread its political message to a worldwide audience.
Thousands of Xinjiang Political Propaganda Videos Surfaced on Western Social Media
The New York Times and independent nonprofit ProPublica spent months analyzing thousands of videos posted on social media and found that the Chinese government has recruited ethnic minority residents of Xinjiang to produce propaganda videos refuting Western criticism of China’s human rights abuses in the region.
Jeff Kao, a reporter for ProPublica, participated in the investigation. He told Voice of America that they discovered in late January that a number of fake Twitter and YouTube accounts had begun pushing out a series of videos. The investigation found that the accounts were registered in recent months, and most of them were not following other users. Their tweets were typically sent between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. BST. These indications suggest that these accounts are acting in unison. The videos sent from these accounts share many similarities, for example, they first came from an app called “Shihua Yun,” which is owned by Xinjiang Daily. Most of the videos are in Chinese or Uyghur, the videos are in the form of selfies, the content of the videos is basically the same, and the phrases and sentence structures used are similar, if not identical.
ProPublica and The New York Times jointly investigated for months and found that these fake accounts operated in two waves beginning in January.
The first wave began in late January, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s “genocide” in Xinjiang on Jan. 19, calling it “the stain of the century. Fake accounts then began posting numerous videos talking about the “happiness and prosperity” of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Although the videos feature different people, almost all of them follow a pattern of introducing themselves as “born and raised in Xinjiang” and then saying they are “very liberal” before calling Pompeo’s claims Then he calls Pompeo’s claims “nonsense” and finally tells “Pompeo, shut your mouth.” Most of the videos don’t have the official promo logo.
The second wave came in March of this year. At that time, several multinational clothing brands, led by H&M, announced that they had stopped sourcing cotton from Xinjiang due to concerns about forced labor in the region. After that, hundreds of cotton-related videos were posted on Garnet Cloud, claiming that cotton farmers in Xinjiang were not forced to labor and criticizing H&M for lying. Most of these videos were sent to YouTube or Twitter.
The New York Times and ProPublica contacted the main characters in the videos, one of whom admitted that the videos were produced by the local propaganda department.
ProPublica reporter Jeff High said, “We’ve seen so many different sides to this, and it’s definitely a concerted strategy and effort to debunk already existing reports about Xinjiang, and it’s very sad for me to see these videos because the main characters in these thousands of videos have their own personal stories, but all they can communicate to the outside world only the message on a given script.”
In an interview with The New York Times and ProPublica, former Secretary of State Pompeo said that the videos are poorly executed, but that the constant repetition of them will make the rhetoric “take hold. He added that China’s propaganda will continue to improve and become “faster and more truthful.
The videos on Twitter and YouTube are also subtitled in English and Chinese by the producers to make them easier for Western viewers to understand.
Jeff said the videos received hundreds of thousands of views on the fake YouTube channels and were widely retweeted on Twitter, and some retweets by senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials received millions of views. But he said it’s hard to keep track of how many viewers the videos have garnered.
Eric Schluessel is a social historian at George Washington University who specializes in the history of China and Central Asia, particularly Xinjiang in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whenever there is criticism of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, he says, the Chinese government launches a massive internal campaign to counter the criticism. But the people inside China are not always aware of these outside criticisms and the reasons for them. So when someone worried about a boycott of Xinjiang cotton in a foreign country suddenly encouraged the purchase of Xinjiang cotton in the Chinese media, it instead reminded many people in China that something was happening in Xinjiang that they didn’t know about.
He observed that these poorly thought out Chinese government propaganda, which even many Chinese don’t believe, had some foreign audiences believing them.
It’s interesting to see these videos exported to foreign countries using the same technology and format [produced] because there’s a very unique format for [China] to produce propaganda videos for internal audiences, a format that’s not necessarily understandable to international audiences,” Xu Linjun said. Although there are subtitles, the style of it and the way the main character speaks, the structure of the video, feels very fake. I often find that many Chinese people don’t automatically believe these videos because they are clearly propaganda videos. But strangely enough, some foreigners are very willing to accept that what these videos represent is real Xinjiang life”.
In response, Xu Linjun explains that it may be because this video format seeks foreign viewers who project their fantasies onto China. “They really want to project their own imagination of China into the videos. These propaganda videos are very strange in an international context, and very strange in form. You have to be really inclined to believe the Chinese government to accept a video like this. So I think it helps Beijing find an audience that will easily believe them,”
ProPublica reporter Jeff Gao said, “I really hope that with this coverage it will reduce the effectiveness of these tactics and clarify more the facts of what’s happening to Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”
YouTube shut down some of its fake accounts after the New York Times and ProPublica stories were published. A company spokeswoman, Ivy Choi, told the New York Times and ProPublica that the company determined that some accounts were “acting in concert” in uploading videos from Xinjiang, while others were removed for violating the YouTube platform’s rules on spam and deceptive behavior.
Twitter also blocked accounts in March and April for violating the platform’s policies against manipulation and spam, according to the New York Times and ProPublica.
Video Calling Attention to Human Rights in Xinjiang Is Shut Down
But two weeks ago, a YouTube channel was blocked not for distributing a Chinese government propaganda video. On the contrary, the channel was posting videos of ethnic minorities searching for their missing family members in Xinjiang.
Since 2017, the channel of Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Volunteers (Atajurt Human Rights) has posted nearly 11,000 videos on YouTube with more than 120 million total views, thousands of which are video testimonies from the families of people imprisoned in Xinjiang detention camps. To ensure the credibility of these video statements, the videos show the identification of both the testifiers and the detained relatives.
The organization has come under fire from Kazakh authorities since its establishment in 2017, but it has received international acclaim for drawing the attention of international organizations such as Human Rights Watch to human rights violations in Xinjiang.
On June 15, the channel was blocked for “violating YouTube’s community guidelines,” and on June 18, YouTube reinstated the channel without public explanation. A few days later, 12 of the channel’s earliest videos disappeared from its public feed.
The 12 videos were reported for violating YouTube’s “cyberbullying and harassment” policy.
Bekzat Maksutkhan, the volunteer group’s leader in Kazakhstan, told VOA via email that the incident illustrates “the great influence that China has on YouTube,” and that he and his colleagues are very disappointed and feel that their lives and work are at risk. He and his colleagues are very disappointed and feel that their lives and jobs are in danger.
He said, “The people in the video are voluntarily showing proof of their personal identification, and it’s the only way we can avoid and prevent false information.”
Xu Linjun said the incident will have a chilling effect on the human rights community and be very demoralizing.
He said, “We probably shouldn’t rely on any social media company to keep an archive of important original documents about what’s going on in Xinjiang. I think it would be very damaging if these archives were permanently deleted because in fact these easily lost videos are the first source of information about crimes against humanity.”
Attajulte filed a complaint for the videos to be blocked, and they have now been restored.
Ivy Choi, a spokeswoman for YouTube’s parent company Google, told Voice of America in an email, “Our harassment policy explicitly prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information, including their government identification or phone numbers. We enforce our policy equally by removing offending videos uploaded by Attajurt Kazakh Human Rights Volunteers’ channel and terminating their channel. However, we recognize the important human rights work of the Attajurt Kazakh Human Rights Volunteers and that the intent of these videos was not to maliciously disclose personally identifiable information. After carefully reviewing their complaint, we reinstated the channel and worked with Attajurt Kazakh Human Rights Volunteers to explain our policy so they could make the best decision for their channel.”
Ivy Chua said the channel was blocked because it violated community rules three times within 90 days. The company suggested the channel obfuscate or truncate proof of personally identifiable information in its videos to avoid breaking the rules.
Maqsut Khan said they were satisfied with the outcome of the matter. He hopes that “Google will not do what only Chinese hackers do” and called on the human rights community to be as vocal as possible about China’s genocide.
While there is no conclusive evidence that China was behind the blocking of the Attajurt Kazakh Human Rights Volunteers channel, it is increasingly common for governments to use copyright laws and social media standards policies to force platforms to take down content that is unfavorable to them.
Nick Monaco, head of China research at digital consultancy Miburo Solutions, told MIT Technology Review that hiding behind standard policies and laws that apply to all users is “a way to provide legitimacy to arbitrary political censorship and create plausible deniability for censors. deniability for censors.” (“a way to lend an air of legitimacy to arbitrary political censorship, and it also creates plausible deniability for the censor”)
According to Xu Linjun, social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter should do a better job of helping those with solid information to disseminate it and protect those users. But many experts with accurate professional information are now being bombarded by bots and malicious people on these social media platforms, and their information is not reaching a wider audience.
“It would be great if these two platforms had better real anti-harassment measures in place to protect real users from spreading real information online. There could be some training to help people with real information and good intentions to spread that information better.”