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China’s propaganda on Xinjiang (W Post editorial)

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“We are very free,” says the subject of a video shot in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. “We are very free now,” says another. “We are very, very free here,” says a third. You’ll be forgiven if you are not convinced: These and thousands of other clips are part of a state campaign to cover up for the cultural genocide against Uyghurs being carried out by President Xi Jinping’s regime. Clumsy as these efforts might seem from afar, they’re still chilling — and they’re still a threat to those in the most danger.

The New York Times and ProPublica uncovered this government influence operation in an investigation published this week that catalogues more than 3,000 unique videos creeping across U.S. sites such as YouTube and Twitter. These videos don’t bear any designation to show they’re official propaganda, but the eerie echoes in language are obvious: For example, “You’re speaking total nonsense,” and close variations of that expression figure in more than 600 clips — a rebuttal to foreign corporations such as H&M and officials such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, whose condemnations appear to have set off this disinformation salvo.

It’s easy from a faraway vantage point to view the campaign as fumbling and likely fruitless. Yet in China, officials have swayed civilian opinion through a digital version of brute force: vast and rapid content production, followed by vast and rapid promotion on domestic channels. Now, the regime has pushed beyond its borders to post the clips on YouTube, amplify them on Twitter through a network of connected accounts, and spread them further with the help of Chinese officials, state-run media and other nationalist figures with hefty followings. The lack of labeling, feigned spontaneity and sheer volume of one-of-a-kind pieces of content also challenge platforms rooting out manipulation — YouTube has said the clips don’t violate its community guidelines.

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The New York Times and ProPublica uncovered this government influence operation in an investigation published this week

 

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