In late March, Twitter reduced the visibility of tweets containing links to Chinese media outlets, in part by asking users to reconsider before they like or retweet such posts. Tweets that link to the websites of Chinese media outlets — ranging from state news agency Xinhua to local state-owned newspaper Shanghai Daily and even iPanda.com, a website owned by state broadcaster CCTV that is dedicated to China’s favorite animal — now come with a box titled “Stay informed” next to a bright orange warning sign.
When liking or retweeting such posts, users are presented with a pop-up that asks them to “Find out more before liking” or sharing, and provides a link to a page explaining the company’s labeling policies. Such tweets will also not be recommended in users’ timelines or otherwise amplified.
In response to the Belarus-aided Russian invasion of Ukraine, Twitter first added these labels to tweets linking Russian and Belarusian state media websites on February 28 and March 10, respectively. RT, a state-controlled broadcaster funded by the Russian government, and Russia’s state news agencies TASS and Sputnik have frequently made false claims about the war — and have refused to even to acknowledge there is a war. (Links to Ukrainian and Iranian state-affiliated media are also labeled.)
Chinese state media have frequently echoed Russian standpoints and disinformation about the conflict. CCTV claimed soon after the invasion that Ukrainian president Zelensky had left the capital Kyiv, citing the speaker of the Russian Duma. More recently, Chinese state media, as well as Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚), have propagated Russian claims that the US runs biological weapons labs in Ukraine.
Whether this was a factor in extending the new feature to Chinese media, Twitter won’t say. “This update builds on our years-long work to add context and clarity to how people interact with state-affiliated news outlets,” a company spokesperson told the China Media Project.
In 2017, the site no longer allowed RT and Sputnik to advertise, a restriction it applied to all state media in 2019. One year later, it added “state-affiliated media” labels to the account pages and tweets of such media outlets and their employees from several countries, including China. After that move, the China Media Project reported, Twitter users liked and shared Chinese media’s tweets significantly less. Posts by the three biggest accounts, belonging to the state-run news agency Xinhua, CCTV’s international broadcasting arm CGTN, and to the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, received over 20 percent fewer likes and shares.
The new labels are meant to reduce Chinese state media content on Twitter, a company spokesperson said. In a March 16 blog post addressing the company’s approach to the war in Ukraine, Twitter said the new labels and related measures “have made a difference, contributing to a 30 percent reduction of the reach of this content.”
Given this substantial reduction in reach, the new labels are likely to affect the Chinese leadership’s global “external propaganda” (外宣) efforts, which under Xi Jinping have been encompassed by the slogan “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事). In recent years, Chinese state media have relied heavily on Western social media platforms, also including Facebook and YouTube, to distribute content created by state-run outlets.
Twitter’s new bright orange warning sign will not be applied directly to tweets by “state-affiliated” accounts, which means there will likely be no additional hit in engagement for posts these accounts make directly. However, those sympathetic to Chinese government viewpoints and eager to share related content might find it harder to spread the word.
In a tweet tagged “#InformationWar,” Andy Boreham, an employee of Shanghai Daily and — proudly, by his own account — the only foreigner to be tagged “China state-affiliated media,” called the new labels a “slippery slope.” In response, Cao Yi, consul at the Chinese embassy in Lebanon, called on people to retweet more state-affiliated media to “keep Twitter a place for reliable info.” Zhang Heqing, cultural counselor at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, called on Twitter to remove the labels.
Does Labelling Go Too Far?
But others expressed concern that the new labelling effort by Twitter might be overreaching in other ways, targeting media in China that while not strictly speaking independent do uphold professionalism and pursue facts in ways that state-run media generally do not.
A number of responses, for example, askedwhether Caixin, a financial media group that has long pursued more professional reporting on business and current affairs issues – and can at times be relatively independent-minded in its reporting – really deserves the same label as outlets more closely aligned with and funded by the state. After the first round of labeling in 2020, there was similar criticism suggesting Caixin should not be placed in the same category as Xinhua or the CCP’s official People’s Daily.
In analysis of Chinese media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war on March 12, the China Media Project noted that despite clear framing of the story as a “crisis” or “special military operation” in central state media, which also downplayed Russia’s aggression, a number of Chinese media were more direct and professional in their reporting. For example, Caixin Weekly (财新周刊), the business and current affairs magazine published by Caixin Global, wrote in one story lede of “the Russian military’s offensive push deep into Ukraine.”
“Ahh I was dreading this day,” China tech reporter Zeyi Yang wrote in response to a “Stay Informed” Twitter label on an article from the outlet Sixth Tone that was actually critical of recent Covid lockdown policies in the city of Jilin. “The inevitable over-simplification for the sake of convenience.”
Location Labelling at Weibo
Meanwhile, at Weibo, the Chinese social media platform often referred to as the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, misinformation about the war in Ukraine has also prompted experimentation with a labelling feature that offers more context about users’ identities.
On March 4, as part of its efforts to deal with “harmful information” as the “Russo-Ukrainian situation” became more severe, the site announced it would begin showing a user’s physical location whenever they shared posts or commented on posts that contained the keywords such as “Ukraine,” “Russia,” or “Kyiv.” The site said it had noticed instances of users claiming they were in Ukraine and offering on-the-ground observations.