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Pandemics & Propaganda: How Chinese State Media Manipulates Conversations on The Coronavirus

The perception of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a significant challenge for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the past two months. The CCP has been attempting to control the narrative and deflect blame since the start of the outbreak, both domestically and abroad. It has done this by drawing on its substantial state- and CCP-owned media apparatus.  

Chinese state media produces and disseminates daily English-language content to English-speaking audiences via Facebook and Twitter (platforms that are technically banned in China). Chinese state media’s English-language Facebook pages post very frequently, and have extremely large audiences. CGTN has over 96 million Page likes; CNN in contrast has only 32 million. These media properties run ads regularly to grow their audiences, which suggests that China invests in these pages as a tool for communicating its message to the English-speaking world. Facebook’s Ads Library shows specific regional ad targeting in India (Punjab State), Nepal, Bangladesh (Dhaka) and the Philippines (Manila), suggesting that English is used to communicate state views to a broad global audience.

To look at how coronavirus narratives targeting English-speaking audiences have played out on Chinese state media, and how they evolved as the outbreak has moved through various phases, we analyzed a data set of Facebook posts containing the keyword “coronavirus” from two distinct sets of media properties: 1) a collection of English-language Chinese (state) media outlets, and 2) a collection of U.S. media outlets*. This “coronavirus” dataset contained 6,870 posts from Chinese media between December 31, 2019 and March 16, 2020, and 13,522 posts from U.S. media outlets over the same period. While Chinese media has increased its coronavirus coverage in January and stayed at a consistent level since then, U.S. media Facebook posts on the coronavirus stayed at low levels until late February, then soared (see histograms HERE).

China’s media spin: rapid recovery 

Chinese and U.S. media articles display different levels of both alarmism and optimism in their coverage of the global pandemic. Chinese outlets included many articles with a focus on positive stories such as the number of recovered patients and examples of successful treatments, while U.S. media reported on new cases of infections and trends in death. For example, Chinese state media reported on a coronavirus patient who gave birth to a healthy baby not infected with coronavirus, whereas the U.S. media told the story of a different newborn in Wuhan who had become the youngest coronavirus patient. CNN credited the story’s source as Chinese state media CCTV, yet no English-language Chinese state media posted this story on their Facebook pages. 

We searched our dataset for the word “patient” and analyzed words commonly used before or after “patient” in Facebook posts made by Chinese state media and U.S. mainstream media. From December 31, 2019 to March 16, 2020, the term “infected” was commonly used in connection with “patient” in both the American and Chinese media (see word clouds below). However, beyond that common term, there are significant divergences, such as the U.S. media reporting on patients as “sick” or “affected”, and the Chinese media frequently mentioning treatment- and recovery-related terms such as “treating”, “recovered”, “discharged” and “cured”. [ … ]

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