This article was published with ProPublica, the nonprofit research editor.
BEIJING — In the Potemkin village of China’s propaganda, the Winter Olympics have become an unqualified success, a celebration of sport and political harmony that has covered up the country’s flaws and human rights abuses — whitewashed critics say.
In Beijing 2022, the hills are snowy, not brown as usual at this time of year. A Uyghur skier is the symbol of national unity, the tennis player Peng Shuai just a curious spectator. Athletes and foreign journalists praise the polite volunteers and marvel at the high-speed trains and the robots that cook dumplings and mix drinks.
While China’s control over what its domestic viewers and readers consume is well established, the country has spread its own version of the Games beyond its borders, with an arsenal of digital tools arguably giving China’s story greater reach and subtlety than ever before.
With bots, fake accounts, real influencers and other tools, China has been able to selectively edit how the events have appeared, even outside the country, promoting anything that supports the official, feel-good story about the Winter Olympics and trying to do everything not to suffocate.
“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics are inseparable from the broader political goal of building the country’s national image,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a monitoring organization. Referring to the country’s leader, he added: “This is what Xi Jinping has called ‘telling China’s story well’.”
On Twitter, which is banned in China, Chinese state media and journalists, as well as diplomats, have tried to boost the image of the Games, raving about venues and nurturing the Olympic mascot.
China has also tried to influence online discussions in more covert ways. DailyExpertNews and ProPublica identified a network of more than 3,000 inauthentic-looking Twitter accounts that appeared to coordinate the Olympics by, for example, sharing state media reports with identical comments. Such accounts were usually created lately with very few followers, tweeting mostly reposts and nothing of their own, and seemed to only work to amplify official Chinese voices.
Some of their efforts have centered on an account called Spicy Panda, which has posted cartoons and videos to counter calls for a boycott of the Olympics. In one cartoon, Spicy Panda accused the United States of wielding “their deceptive propaganda weapon to stain the Olympics”.
The tweet was reposted 281 times, all by the fake-looking accounts, but received little other engagement, a strong indication that the network was being mobilized to promote the post. Aside from the outbursts of promotion, Spicy Panda’s posts about the Olympics received almost no attention.
Explore the Games
In the spotlight: As Russian athletes achieve more victories, current and past doping scandals, as well as the situation in Ukraine, are casting a shadow over their triumphs. Caught in the Middle: American athletes of Chinese descent in Beijing have become the target of patriotic sentiments, both adoring and hostile, from both China and the American Ice-Suit Clad Panda: The Souvenir Search of Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, Beijing has long lines and dazzling price tags. The quest for good food: Hungry athletes, officials, volunteers and journalists have struggled and tried hard to find moments of delicious culinary distraction, no matter how small.
An analysis of Spicy Panda’s followers yielded 861 accounts – 90 percent of which were created after December 1. The first wave of coordinated messages from the accounts pushed Beijing’s stance that the Hong Kong legislative council elections were legitimate, though critics called the vote a sham. Then the accounts turned their attention to the Olympics. (Thursday, all but one account was suspended, shortly after The Times and ProPublica asked Twitter.)
Spicy Panda appears to be associated with iChongqing, a state media-linked multimedia platform in Chongqing, a city in central China. The accounts sharing Spicy Panda’s posts often did the same with tweets from iChongqing’s account. IChongqing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other blunt accounts promoted hashtags intended to drown out criticism of China, a hallmark of past campaigns.
They promoted content under hashtags like #Beijing2022 and #TogetherForASharedFuture, this year’s official Olympic motto. Some accounts repeatedly posted tweets with identical wording, such as: “China’s hosting of #Beijing2022 as planned has boosted the world’s confidence in beating the pandemic.”
Twitter said in an emailed statement it had suspended hundreds of accounts identified by The Times and ProPublica for violations of its platform manipulation and spam policies. It said it continued to investigate the accounts’ links to state-sponsored intelligence operations.
Even the official mascot of the Games, Bing Dwen Dwen, a cuddly panda in an ice pack, has been the subject of an organized campaign on Twitter, according to Albert Zhang, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy’s International Cyber Policy Center. Institute.
February 18, 2022, 5:24 a.m. ET
Thousands of new or previously inactive accounts contributed to the mascot going viral, he said — what the Chinese state media presented as proof of the mascot’s popularity and, by extension, that of the Games.
“If you want to spread a lot of content about something like the Beijing Olympics, this is an easy way to do it,” said Mr. Zhang. He added that the campaign now underway, like others, was sponsored by the Chinese state to push through Beijing’s narrative on issues such as Covid-19 and the crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The information space in China is no different from the elaborate measures that have created the “closed loop” that keeps athletes, journalists and other participants strictly separated from the general public.
Within the “closed loop” of official propaganda, the state carefully controls almost everything ordinary Chinese see or read. The effect was an Olympics without scandal, criticism or bad news.
When the United States hockey team played against an outranked Chinese team, the match was not shown on state television’s main sports channel, CCTV 5, and the 8-0 defeat was only briefly mentioned in news reports. A state media slideshow devoted to the men’s figure skating competition conspicuously omitted United States gold medalist Nathan Chen.
In Chinese images of the Games, the mountains where many of the games are held have been deftly framed to exclude the dry, brown slopes in the background, until Day 8 when a snowstorm covered them with a white glaze.
One of the biggest political stories of the Games has also played out beyond China’s internet firewall: the appearance of Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player and three-time Olympian who caused a stir when she accused a senior Communist Party leader of sexual assault against her.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach met her for dinner, as he promised when global outrage over her fate threatened to overshadow the Games. Ms. Peng has appeared in curling and figure skating, among others. None of that was shown in China, where all references to her allegations have been erased, including subsequent statements attributed to her that she had been misunderstood.
“It is absolutely crucial to understand that this is not just another story,” said Mr. Bandurski of the China Media Project on the Olympics. “It’s a story that involves widespread censorship and the manipulation of public opinion, which is really policy.”
Jack Stubbs, vice president of intelligence at Graphika, a social media monitoring company, said his company had observed another Chinese propaganda network using foreign social media platforms.
The network has distributed videos highlighting the Olympics as environmentally friendly and complaining about strengthening Sino-Russian ties, punctuated by President Vladimir V. Putin’s presence at the opening ceremony.
China has defended its use of Twitter and Facebook, platforms it bans at home. A spokeswoman for the State Department, Hua Chunying, said last year that such sites are an “additional channel” to combat negative imagery in the West.
An American company, Vippi Media, based in New Jersey, signed a $300,000 contract with the Consulate General of China in New York to help promote the Games, according to the company’s filing with the Department of Justice under the the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Under the contract, first reported by the research group Open Secrets, the company will promote the Games by recruiting “social media stars” to post on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, company founder Vipinder Jaswal said in a statement. interview by phone.
“They were very clear and I was very clear that it is only about the Olympics and the Olympics, nothing to do with politics,” he said.
Once the Games started, the drama of the sports themselves dominated attention. Protests against China’s human rights record have not materialized, as some activists hoped. On the contrary, many athletes have received high praise.
“When you really meet the people here and talk to them,” Jenise Spiteri, the American snowboarder competing for Malta, said in an interview with state media, “everyone has a very good heart.”
Spicy Panda tweeted a state media report about another American competitor, freestyle skier Aaron Blunck. In comments from the official China Daily newspaper, Mr Blunck praised China’s Covid protocols.
“#AaronBlunck revealed the real China that is completely different from what some US media has said!” Read Spicy Panda’s post.
Steven Lee Myers covered from Beijing, Paul Mozur from Seoul and Jeff Kao from New York. Claire Fu and John Liu contributed research.