China influences social media with nationalistic narratives

Key Points

  • An online investigation by Janes has identified a Chinese influence operation on Twitter, consisting of diplomats, media organisations, media figures, and influencers.
  • The investigation used open-source techniques and tools to identify the network, understand its narratives, and highlight its levels of co-ordination.
  • The network is an example of China’s assertive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, pursued by pro-China accounts on Western social media platforms.

China uses social media as part of its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, seeking to present itself as a ‘benevolent’ global leader while drawing attention to perceived weaknesses in rival countries. Ben Pierce identifies a Chinese influence operation on Twitter.

Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi cast doubt on views that the Covid-19 virus had first emerged in China in an interview highlighting Chinese efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Wang made his claims to Chinese state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency on 2 January 2021, while providing an overview of his country’s diplomacy during the preceding year. He claimed that “more and more research” suggested Covid-19 had first emerged elsewhere, in “multiple places” around the world.

Following Wang’s interview, Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter quickly disseminated his narrative, with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeting a link to Wang’s Xinhua interview. This was then retweeted by another prominent Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, before being promoted by a wider network of Chinese diplomats, embassies, and consulates on the platform. The development was the latest example of Chinese ‘discourse power’, or attempts by the Chinese state to project a positive image of China to the rest of the world through overt influence operations on Western social media platforms.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at the daily media briefing in Beijing on 8 April 2020. Senior politicians and diplomats are the first to tweet significant posts that are taken up by cascading groups of Chinese consuls and media operatives. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images )

Such attempts are examples of China’s so-called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, a new style of assertive and sometimes aggressive diplomacy pursued by Chinese diplomats on Twitter. The style takes its name from the Chinese-made action film Wolf Warrior and its sequel Wolf Warrior 2 . The basic premise of these nationalistic films is that Chinese special forces will emerge victorious against Western enemies.

An online investigation by Janes has identified a wolf-warrior influence operation on Twitter consisting of four layers (identified below). The layers form a network that projects pro-China narratives on a range of topics. The process of identifying this network consisted of three steps.

First, using a combination of free social media tools and Twitter features, the investigation identified the layers of the network. Second, using more free tools and databases, the investigation identified a range of pro-China narratives promoted by the network. Third, the dissemination of these narratives was analysed, revealing co-ordination between different layers of the network.

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Key PointsAn online investigation by Janes has identified a Chinese influence operation on Twitter, ...

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