Chinese Narratives Persist as COVID Disinformation Loses Traction


June 25, 2020


Engagement with Chinese, Russian, and Iranian government coronavirus disinformation has fallen steadily since peaking in mid-March, according to Predata’s analytics. However, attention to themes related to Chinese government narratives questioning U.S. leadership has persisted and certain audiences—most notably Portuguese speakers—are still engaging with disinformation themes despite the general decline.

General Decline in Disinformation Engagement

Online attention to Chinese, Russian, and Iranian government disinformation themes surrounding the pandemic peaked in mid-March, coinciding with the imposition of social distancing restrictions across the United States and Europe. The most salient narratives at the time were global elite conspiracy theories and the idea that the coronavirus may be a U.S. bioweapon. Excluding a brief spike in the wake of the ‘Plandemic’ video, engagement with disinformation has steadily declined since then.

Chinese Leadership Narrative Persists

The one disinformation campaign that has bucked the global trend has been the Chinese government narrative questioning U.S. global leadership. Foreign investment ties have been one way the Chinese government has emphasized its reliability as a partner compared to the United States, and attention to programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank has generally held steady since March.

By contrast, interest in U.S. and European foreign aid programs has dropped significantly since April, despite U.S. counter-messaging emphasizing a long track record of foreign assistance.

Certain Audiences Remain More Engaged

Engagement with coronavirus disinformation themes has not dropped off consistently across the world. Since the beginning of May, Portuguese-language attention to disinformation themes is 121% higher than it was in January and February. Brazil—home to about 75% of the world’s Portuguese speakers—has struggled to contain its coronavirus outbreak and President Jair Bolsonaro has amplified disinformation related to the virus’ origins and treatment. By contrast, Chinese-, Persian-, and Russian-language attention have all been lower since the beginning of May compared to the start of the year.

The trends in engagement with coronavirus disinformation suggest that even as the global reach of disinformation themes declines, some narratives will continue to break through and certain audiences will continue to engage.

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