This story was originally published by ProPublica. This story was co-published with The New York Times.
Inside the Potemkin village of China’s propaganda, the Winter Olympics have unfolded as an unalloyed success, a celebration of sports and political harmony that has obscured — critics say whitewashed — the country’s flaws and rights abuses.
At Beijing 2022, the hills are snowy, not brown as usual 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 boil dumplings and mix drinks.
While China’s control of 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 that are giving China’s narrative arguably greater reach and subtlety than ever before.
With bots, fake accounts, genuine influencers
and other tools, China has been able to selectively edit how the events have appeared, even outside the country, promoting everything that bolsters the official, feel-good story about the Winter Olympics and trying to smother whatever doesn’t.
“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics are inseparable from the broader political goal of building up 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 outlets and journalists, as well as diplomats, have tried to buff the image of the Games, raving about venues and cooing over the Olympic mascot.
(An account called Spicy Panda used artificially boosted posts to accuse the United States of attempting to “stain the Olympics.” Notations were added by ProPublica. Credit: Screenshot from Twitter by ProPublica)
China has also sought to influence online discussions in more concealed ways. The New York Times and ProPublica identified a network of more than 3,000 inauthentic-looking Twitter accounts that appeared to be coordinating to promote the Olympics by sharing state media posts with identical comments, for instance. Such accounts tended to be recently created with very few followers, tweeted mostly reposts and nothing of their own, and appeared to operate solely to amplify official Chinese voices.
Some of their efforts have centered on an account called Spicy Panda, which has been posting cartoons and videos to push back against calls for a boycott of the Olympics
. In one cartoon, Spicy Panda accused the United States of wielding “its deceiving 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 mobilized to promote the message. Aside from the bursts of promotion, Spicy Panda’s posts about the Olympics received almost no attention.