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Strange bedfellows on Xinjiang: The CCP, fringe media and US social media platforms

By Albert Zhang, Jacob Wallis and Zoe Meers

This report explores how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fringe media and pro-CCP online actors seek—sometimes in unison—to shape and influence international perceptions of the Chinese Government’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including through the amplification of disinformation. United States (US) based social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, along with Chinese-owned TikTok (owned by Chinese company ByteDance), are centre stage for this global effort.

The Chinese Government continues to deny human rights abuses in Xinjiang despite a proliferation of credible evidence, including media reporting, independent research, testimonies and open-source data, that has revealed abuses including forced labour, mass detention, surveillance, sterilisation, cultural erasure and alleged genocide in the region. To distract from such human rights abuses, covert and overt online information campaigns have been deployed to portray positive narratives about the CCP’s domestic policies in the region, while also injecting disinformation into the global public discourse regarding Xinjiang.

The report’s key findings:

  • Since early 2020, there’s been a stark increase in the Chinese Government and state media’s use of US social media networks to push alternative narratives and disinformation about the situation in Xinjiang. Chinese state media accounts have been most successful in using Facebook to engage and reach an international audience.
  • The CCP is using tactics including leveraging US social media platforms to criticise and smear Uyghur victims, journalists and researchers who work on this topic, as well as their organisations. We expect these efforts to escalate in 2021.
  • Chinese Government officials and state media are increasingly amplifying content, including disinformation, produced by fringe media and conspiracist websites that are often sympathetic to the narrative positioning of authoritarian regimes. This amplifies the reach and influence of these sites in the Western media ecosystem. Senior officials from multilateral organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), have also played a role in sharing such content.
  • The Xinjiang Audio-Video Publishing House, a publishing organisation owned by a regional government bureau and affiliated with the CCP’s United Front Work Department, has funded a marketing company to create videos depicting Uyghurs as supportive of the Chinese Government’s policies in Xinjiang. Those videos were then amplified on Twitter and YouTube by a network of inauthentic accounts. The Twitter accounts also retweeted and liked non-Xinjiang-related tweets by Chinese diplomatic officials and Chinese state-affiliated media in 2020.