For most of February, a Twitter user named @SpicyPandaAcc churned out one uplifting tweet after another about the 2022 Winter Olympics and their host city Beijing.
The Spicy Panda account celebrated Chinese aerial skier Xu Mengtao, a gold medalist and a “role model” who “tells us love and persistence will make a dream come true.” Spicy Panda praised Beijing and its many attractions, tweeting on February 14 that a “tour of the snow-kissed Forbidden City is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” The account’s boosterism extended to the Chinese Communist Party, with Spicy Panda lauding the party’s carbon emissions goals and hailing the Winter Games as “a watershed for the accelerated implementation of hydrogen energy in China. #Beijing2022.”
On occasion, Spicy Panda took a more hard-edged tone, like when it criticized the Biden administration’s pull-out from Afghanistan or when it shared an American freestyle skier’s praise for China’s Covid protocols at the games: “#AaronBlunck revealed the real China that is totally different from what some American media have said!”
On Feb. 22, Spicy Panda shared one final video about the Olympics. (“Happy moments come and go, but memories stay!”) Then it abruptly switched its focus to the looming conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “‘#Ukraine is not just a neighbor. It is an inherent part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.’ ——Russian President Putin #RussiaUkraineCrisis #Russian.” As Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Spicy Panda shared videos from the Russian state-owned RT network and promoted other pro-Putin content until Twitter suspended the account in late February.
At one point, Spicy Panda boasted close to 50,000 followers, and its tweets often generated hundreds of shares by what looked to be bot-like accounts. Spicy Panda’s bio was vague, containing just a single line: “Shed light on the unspoken truth and offer sharp and spicy insights into the changing world.” But according to Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies disinformation and state actors on social media, @SpicyPandaAcc was “one of the best quality Chinese propaganda accounts I’ve ever seen,” adding that the account was one of a fleet of such propaganda accounts. And if one gets pulled off Twitter, Linvill says, another account will soon take its place.
Disinformation and social-media experts say Spicy Panda was just one example of how the Chinese government has used Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an opportunity to wage its own propaganda war that targets both its domestic population and the English-speaking world beyond its borders.
So far, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda has stopped short of fully supporting Russia in the bloody conflict in Ukraine, experts say. Rather, the overarching point of this campaign is to depict China as a rational, sober world power, and the United States and the West as a reckless, violent, and imperialistic forces that threaten global peace.
“They are trying to contrast themselves with what they now see as a fraying, destructive security apparatus across Europe,” says Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and coauthor of the book Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media. “China is trying to say, ‘We’re peaceful, but look at how the West, and especially the United States, always turns to violence.’ “
In recent years, China has adopted a largely favorable stance toward Putin and the Russian government, with Chinese President Xi Jinping calling Putin his “best friend.” In the days before and after the Russian invasion, Chinese officials have refused to use the word “invasion” to describe Russia’s actions and have opposed sanctions on Russian individuals and banks. When the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn the invasion, China abstained from the vote. At the same time, spokespeople for the Chinese Communist Party have blamed the U.S. and NATO for sparking the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and Chinese social-media platforms have amplified Russian messaging, including by promoting Putin’s bombastic speech attempting to justify the invasion and suppressing pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia content, researchers say.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a flood of disinformation in multiple languages to influence people’s perception of the conflict. This has been true in Russia for almost a decade, as pro-Putin politicians and state-owned media have sought to change public opinion after the Ukrainian people in 2014 ousted a pro-Russian president and resisted Putin’s attempts to keep the country within Russia’s sphere of influence.
As researcher and investigative journalist Jane Lytvynenko pointed out, in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion, Russian officials spread misleading or outright false claims about their plans, claiming that Ukraine was a threat to Russia, that it supported terrorist attacks on Russia, and that its desire to join NATO posed an existential threat to Russia. Putin and Russian politicians who belong to his United Russia political party say an incursion into Ukraine would be a “de-Nazification” mission, likening Ukraine’s government to Adolf Hitler’s.
Since the invasion began, much of Russia’s disinformation content has appeared in the Russian language, as opposed to the Russian influence operations in English that targeted the 2016 and 2020 American elections. The need for a campaign targeting Russian citizens in their own native tongue is obvious, according to Darren Linvill, the Clemson professor. “Putin is very focused on justifying this activity to the Russian people,” he says.
In China’s case, the ruling Communist Party’s objectives are more subtle. They align within the country’s broader goal of asserting its role as a — if not the — global power of the 21st century.
One recurring theme in Chinese propaganda is the notion that the United States initiated and is fueling the conflict in Ukraine. The Chinese Communist Party understands the power of a viral meme and often uses political cartoons in its propaganda, experts say. For instance, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, tweeted this cartoon on Feb. 25:
The US should ask itself who's the one that started all these. pic.twitter.com/Zxdk1OUG4o
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) February 26, 2022
On Feb. 27, Hua Chunying, another Chinese foreign ministry official, took aim on Twitter at both the U.S. and NATO, claiming that if those two entities “really care about peace and the #Ukrainian people, why can’t they simply say they won’t take Ukraine into NATO and allow Ukraine to be a bridge instead of a battlefield?”
The Chinese also like to use domestic critics of the U.S. government in their propaganda. It’s a tactic that Kenton Thibaut, a resident China fellow at Digital Forensic Research, describes as “borrowing foreign voices.” Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s tweet, for instance, built on an earlier tweet from former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who said that the Russian invasion could’ve been “avoided if Biden Admin/NATO had simply acknowledged Russia’s legitimate security concerns regarding Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO.” Beneath that, Hua also shared Gabbard’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show where she made similar comments.
If they really want to avoid more losses of lives, why do they keep shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine instead of encouraging & supporting talks? pic.twitter.com/0XRx3cHA2K
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) February 27, 2022
Thibaut, the Chinese disinformation expert, says she’s seen the Gabbard-Carlson clip in heavy rotation in Chinese propaganda. She’s also seen a clip featuring another Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, used by the Chinese. The larger aim of repurposing this English-language content, Thibaut says, is to promote the idea that the U.S. “is really the cause of this conflict. It’s U.S. imperialism, overreach, and interventionism.”
Within China’s borders, the disinformation campaign has a different look, researchers say. The domestic propaganda tends to promote the image of China as a peaceful world power — a country whose rise to economic and military might happened “without a shot fired,” as the Communist Party likes to (inaccurately) put it. The country’s propagandists and its censors appear to be working in concert to elevate stories and posts that play up themes of peace talks, negotiations, and de-escalation, while blocking content that speaks to the horrors of the invasion and the popular unrest in response to that attack. The effect of this, researchers say, is a near-complete blackout on any pro-Ukraine content on domestic platforms.
According to research provided by Thibaut, posts censored by WeChat, a popular Chinese social-media platform, say things like “Russian anti-war people burned their passports: ‘Apologize to the world!'”; “Rally for Ukraine!”; “Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Historic Mistake That Endangers National Fortune!”
Emerson Brooking of the Atlantic County’s Digital Forensic Lab says China is playing a different game than any other nation as it relates to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While the Chinese have made clear their antagonism toward the U.S., there isn’t an overtly pro-Putin tone in their domestic Chinese propaganda. That’s in line with China’s decision to abstain from the U.N. Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion. “They’re picking neither,” Brooking says. “The message is: it’s a shame what the west has pushed Russia to do.”
Brooking adds: “The ideal outcome for China is that China positions itself as the adult in the room.”