Face Masks and Cheap Fakes: China’s Italian Twitter Campaign
Climate Change and Global Security
Chiara De Cuia
Terrorism and security analyst and Deputy Director of NextGen 5.0.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NextGen 5.0
As Covid-19 ruthlessly spread across Europe and the rest of the world, so did China’s public relations/ propaganda campaign on Western social media (especially on Twitter), in an effort to shape and manipulate the global perception of China and its role in the Covid-19 pandemic. Unleashing its army of Twiplomats , China has been trying to push pro-Chinese narratives, fighting American counternarratives – sometimes with amusing Lego-style content  – spreading disinformation, and praising the Chinese modus operandi during the pandemic, often criticizing other countries . In an economically and politically challenged European Union, China promoted itself as a reliable partner at the expense of the concept of European solidarity . In this context, Italy’s dramatic situation (Italy was the first Western and first European country to face a dramatic Covid-19 outbreak) and the initially slow incoming support from the country’s traditional allies and partners, provided China with a fertile ground to test its Twitter efforts to project its “sharp power” .
While Western social media platforms are banned in China, the Chinese government has understood their value – Twitter especially – in helping control the Chinese narrative on the international stage by shaping global public perception. With the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, China began strengthening its Twitter presence , building an actual Twitter propaganda machine not only with fake and hijacked accounts , but with a team of Chinese diplomats, embassies, and consulates  scattered worldwide that have taken their presence on Twitter on a public diplomacy mission to “tell China stories well” .
Of the accounts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials that have joined the platform in the past year, of particular interest in the context of the current global health crisis are the following (see PDF).
Twitter seems to have actually provided support to set up these officials’ Twitter presence , for example, by supplying their accounts with the coveted blue verified badge: the verification program has been paused since 2017 due to the confusion that surrounded it , but the platform has been making exceptions for the sake of advancing the global, public conversation . For example, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte joined Twitter in May 2018 and received the badge, so did young activist Greta Thunberg who joined Twitter in June 2018, or the City of Chicago who joined the platform in January 2020.
Social media platforms find themselves in the difficult position of arbitrating content and fighting disinformation, while guaranteeing the free expression of diverse opinions. This becomes even more difficult when the actors in question are political figures and world leaders. On the matter, Twitter has stated that “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate,”  clearly stating that public-interest exceptions are made if the content “directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern”  even when content violates the platform’s rules . While Twitter has taken further action to face the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting measures that promote reliable information, label misleading information as such, and protect the public conversation , exceptions still exist which leave an easily exploitable grey area.
On the other hand, it must be noted that Twitter – as well as other platforms – have been working against fake, automated accounts believed to be connected to state-backed information operations : this was the case for about 200,000 accounts originating from within the PRC between July - September 2019 during the protests in Hong Kong . Perhaps we will see similar actions in the coming months, given that new swarms of accounts have emerged , amplifying Beijing’s voice in the current global narrative battle, although it is still unclear whether the Chinese government is behind them .
Having fought the pandemic before others, China used its temporal advantage by sending aid to countries in distress and launching a massive public relations/propaganda campaign to shape perceptions by exploiting political tensions and the void in global leadership created by the crisis. Pushing two macro-narratives aimed at domestic and international audiences (on Chinese and Western social media respectively), China has been seeking to be seen and portrayed as a victor and solidarity champion, rather than a mere survivor of the pandemic, and has been attempting to sow confusion on the origin of the outbreak and deflect the blame. The Chinese government, in fact, has been facing domestic and international criticism for the growing reports  of an initial attempt to cover up the outbreak  by censoring Chinese social media and silencing whistle-blowing doctors , and has been disputing that Covid-19 originated in China which, however, seems to be confirmed by phylogeny .
China’s Twiplomats – spearheaded by Hua Chunying, Spokesperson and Director General of the Department of Information of the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Lijian Zhao , Spokesperson & Deputy Director General of the same department (who joined Twitter in 2010 as @zlj517) – have been on the frontlines of this campaign. They have been actively sharing pro-Chinese content (the essence of public diplomacy), reacting to President Trump’s use of the terms “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus,” and the shameful wave of anti-Chinese discrimination and racism triggered by the crisis, of which there have been instances in Italy as well. They have been pushing the idea that China’s transparency and endeavor to combat the epidemic bought the rest of the world time , highlighting the successes of its crisis management model. They have been sharing China’s well-advertised donations of medical supplies as facemasks, testing kits, or ventilators arriving at airports worldwide, showing the country’s production capabilities for this in-demand equipment, and presenting China as a self-less and reliable partner of first resort. But such accounts have also gone as far as sharing doctored content such as cheap fakes or spreading disinformation like conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army . It must be noted that in this battle of narratives, the U.S. government has also pushed false claims, such as that suggesting that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan .
Scrolling through these official Twitter accounts, one can notice how the content varies in language and is tailored depending on the audience and target nation, but that it is ultimately similar across all accounts, pushing the same narratives in a seemingly coordinated manner. Content from accounts like those of Hua Chunying and Lijian Zhao, or content shared by Chinese state-media outlets as China Xinhua News, People’s Daily, China, Global Times, or CGTN is meticulously retweeted by the Twiplomats and an army of bots , creating coordinated echo chambers across the platform. Nevertheless, some accounts are more active or aggressive than others , indicating a certain degree of “strategic” independence (or maybe lack of “strategic” cohesion).
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has witnessed China’s Twitter propaganda machine at work, especially in Italy.
China’s Italian Twitter Propaganda Campaign: A Case Study
Within China’s global propaganda efforts, Italy offered a unique operational environment.
Italy was the first Western and first European country to face a dramatic Covid-19 outbreak and, regrettably, did not receive much initial solidarity from its historical allies and European partners, some of which, for example, blocked the much-needed export of facemasks . Once other European member states began experiencing serious outbreaks, European solidarity started to kick in. While the help received hasn’t been too little (Germany and Austria, for example, have flown Italian patients in need of intensive care to their hospitals), it was perhaps, too late in terms of optics, especially given the lack of an effective communication strategy to complement this mobilization , and provide a strong counternarrative. In a recent blog post , the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, highlighted this shortcoming and the “need to defend Europe against its detractors [...] with facts” in the current global battle of narratives, and a much debated  European External Action Service report  confirmed Chinese (and Russian) disinformation efforts to the detriment of the European Union.
Given the tragic unfolding of events in Italy, its need for medical supplies, the tense relationship with its E.U. partners, and a mounting anti-European feeling in response, Italy represented a fertile ground for China’s information campaign to project its “sharp power.” Italy’s recent politics and relationship with China have also been facilitating factors. Since 2018, the Five Star Movement –a main proponent in the Italian political landscape for an intensification of ties with China  – has been part of Italy’s governing coalition. The party and its former political leader, Luigi Di Maio , have played an active and crucial role in strengthening bilateral relations with China: as Minister of Economic Development, in fact, Di Maio was one of the institutional architects behind Italy’s signing of a non-binding MoU in March 2019 (re: Silk Road) . Italy became the first G7 country to take such a step, raising some concerns among Italy’s Western allies and partners, despite the fact that Chinese investments pervade all European economies  and that the memorandum was drafted in accordance with European standards .
In a March 24 interview , now Minister of Foreign Affairs Di Maio took the opportunity to gloat about how Italy’s much criticized decision to invest in its friendship with China (the aforementioned MoU) was paying off, showing gratitude for the provision of facemasks and ventilators. These comments and Di Maio’s initial propensity to primarily highlight China’s generous efforts have definitely had an enabling effect on China’s narrative in Italy, but they’ve also ignited criticism from other parties . In fact, Italy’s political spectrum includes the Democratic Party, which has compensated for Di Maio’s remarks by actively emphasizing and reiterating Italy’s historical alliances ; and the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, who shared a 2015 (real) video that fed into the conspiracy theory on the laboratory origin of the virus in Wuhan, and who stated that if China did initially cover up the outbreak, then it has committed a crime against humanity . Furthermore, there has been a widespread concern from across the political spectrum for China’s possible ulterior strategic motives: to this point, Italy has put her hands forward and empowered the country’s “Golden Power Law” to further “protect strategic assets of companies active in key sectors of the Italian economy” .
China’s Twitter Tactics and Narrative
With the news of the Covid-19 outbreak in China, Italy and other European countries (including Germany, France, and Britain)  demonstrated solidarity by shipping supplies. Italian help also came from many companies, smaller entrepreneurs , sister cities , and non-profits.
When, weeks later, Italy became the party in need, China reciprocated the help received. However, while delivering aid to Italy, China managed to frame and spin facts to better fit its desired narrative through PR efforts equipped with ad hoc vignettes, slogans, and hashtags like #ForzaCinaeItalia (Come on China and Italy).
Between February 24 and mid-April, most of the content posted on the Twitter account of the PRC Embassy in Italy (@AmbCina – account that was created in 2018) focused on Chinese donations and help to Italy: donations of supplies and equipment from the Chinese Government, Chinese cities with sister city relations, Chinese companies , and Chinese communities in Italy have been scrupulously reported on @AmbCina. When comparing the content posted by @AmbCina to that posted by the account of the Italian Embassy in China (@ItalyinChina), one notices the lack of display of the many Italian donations to China: while there is nothing wrong with flaunting donations, in this case one can only talk about a missed communications opportunity for Italy    . While the solidarity is undisputed, one can’t help but also notice some targeted donations by state-backed enterprises with strategic interests: telecom firm ZTE , which opened a 5G research and innovation center in the city of L’Aquila (home to a high-tech business incubator) donated ventilators, and Genoa and Trieste, two port-cities eyed for the Belt Road Initiative, received facemasks by the Cosco Shipping Corporation  and the China Communication Construction Company respectively .
Furthermore, among these donations were also facemasks and equipment purchased by the Italian government  that were not clearly labeled as such when posted on Twitter. While some Italian journalists have raised the issue , Italian authorities on Twitter have not put much effort in setting the record straight by classifying shipments on their Twitter posts. While ambiguity is not sanctionable behavior, it is a further element that – unchallenged – has enabled China’s narrative.
It does, however, get more problematic when Chinese media and officials spread disinformation.
When, on March 19, Dr. Giuseppe Remuzzi, Director of the Pharmacological Research Institute Mario Negri, was interviewed by NPR, he said that “practitioners remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November […] This means that the virus was circulating, at least in [the northern region of] Lombardy and before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China" . This statement, which did not indicate that the virus originated in Italy as opposed to China, was spun by Chinese media to suggest exactly that . In a later interview with an Italian newspaper, Dr. Remuzzi defined what occurred as an instrumental insinuation for the sake of propaganda , and that the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China, is scientifically confirmed. The Global Times, China Xinhua News, CGTN and China Daily, all shared the misleading statement on Twitter. This happened several days after Lijian Zhao pushed the idea that Covid-19 was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army . The only government Twitter account – of the ones listed above – that shared Dr. Remuzzi’s decontextualized statement was the account of the PRC Embassy in France .
Finally, the most disturbing element of China’s information campaign featuring Italy is the use of cheap fakes.
Cheap fakes are audiovisual manipulations that rely on conventional techniques like speeding, slowing, cutting, re-staging, or re-contextualizing footage (as opposed to deep fakes, which are the product of AI-reliant techniques) . On March 15, a couple of videos showing Italians clapping, shouting “Thank you China!” with the Chinese anthem playing in the background were shared by Chinese media Twitter accounts, by Hua Chunying, and by Lijian Zhao. While Italians have definitely appreciated China’s help and solidarity, the gratitude displayed in the videos was, well, fake.
The video shared by Hua Chunying  is actually a collage of two videos as uncovered by Open . The videos used were respectively shot in the city of Turin  and in Rome , showing Italy’s flash mobs organized to show appreciation for Italy’s hospital workers. Hua Chunying’s video cut and recontextualized footage from both videos, with added Chinese subtitles to frame the images, locating the events solely in Rome and featuring a slowed-down voice saying “Grazie Cina” (Thank you China). The result was a cheap, poorly edited video that, however, garnered attention, and played into China’s narrative.
Lijian Zhao also shared a video that same day , showing the Chinese anthem being played in a neighborhood in Rome. A similar video was shared by China Daily , which – when comparing it with the previous one – seems to have been filmed from the same vantage point (same window or balcony): in this video, however, two voices say “Grazie Cina,” an element not present in the one shared by Lijian Zhao, which points to a possible post-production addition. A third video uploaded by CGTN (again featuring the Chinese anthem and a voice thanking China)  was filmed in the same neighborhood as the previous two videos (the filming locations are less than 300 m apart) , suggesting a likely organized, staged effort.
Finally, People’s Daily, China posted a video  showing a law-enforcement motorcade in Milan with the caption “A team of 13 Chinese medical staff arrived in #Milan, #Italy to help contain the #Covid_19 #pandemic. They will share their experience with local experts and provide guidance and consultation for #coronavirus control and treatment. #CoronaOutbreak.” The motorcade was actually organized by Italian law enforcement forces and aid workers to comfort and reassure local citizens and had nothing to do with the arrival of the Chinese medical staff, as the decontextualized footage and text hinted at .
While Italians have shown appreciation for the help received by China in different ways, some of the instances shown by Chinese media and officials on Twitter have been manipulated and posted to be deliberately misleading to advance China’s narrative.
Italy’s Perception of China
China has used its temporal advantage in this pandemic by playing an active international role and attempting to fill the void in global leadership. China has reciprocated the aid received during its domestic emergency and went beyond that, but it has also used such opportunity to project its sharp power. To complement these actions, China launched a complex (ongoing) information campaign aimed at international audiences: China is seeking to be seen and portrayed as a victor and a solidarity champion, rather than just a survivor of the pandemic, and has, at the same time, been attempting to sow confusion on the origin of the outbreak and deflect the blame.
In China’s Italy-focused information efforts on Twitter – which was just a small component of China’s wider global information operations  – both narratives were present, offering a glimpse into how Chinese media and officials have resorted to the use of manipulated content to push such visions. In terms of effectiveness of China’s Twitter – and wider information – campaign, a report by the Italian think tank IAI and the University of Siena analyzed Italian public opinion during the Covid-19 crisis and found that the majority of those interviewed perceived Chinese aid as a gesture of genuine solidarity, as opposed to politically motivated. The report highlights how this result needs to be read in light of the parallel Chinese information operations that took place on social media . However, while Italians have demonstrated appreciation for the help received, and the many instances of Chinese generosity, others have shown skepticism towards China’s bogus online content, especially when aware of the political intent behind it: the comments on the Twitter posts are a mix of authentic manifestations of gratitude, bots, and skeptical, anti-Chinese remarks.
Italy’s perception of China is, in fact, more nuanced, even inconsistent at times. The majority of Italians seem to blame China for the global pandemic and say that the country should admit its responsibility, but they have also appreciated the way the country domestically managed the emergency, seeing the Chinese model as one to follow . The aforementioned report also indicated that about 55% of the respondents viewed the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory as plausible . Yet, a different survey, carried out by SWG, reported that 36% of respondents indicated that Italy should develop its extra-European alliance with China, against the 30% that indicated the U.S., while the remaining 34% did not know .
It remains to be seen if these perceptions are sticky in the long run, if they are merely a reaction to European disappointment, and if they will have geopolitical consequences once this global health crisis has passed, giving way to a global recession. One thing is sure though: China has developed and, most importantly, deployed a new information operations approach  and the world will likely see more of the “Chinese playbook” in the future.
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