Imagine, if you will, a world in which the Russian government was buying de facto campaign ads on Facebook that weren’t flagged as political.
The ads contained videos that smeared one presidential candidate as xenophobic.
They didn’t like how the candidate was talking about Russia during the coronavirus pandemic, and the ads made it clear that if you voted for them, you were casting a vote for bigotry.
And that wasn’t all. They were questioning the origins of the virus. Could it have come from somewhere but China? Maybe the United States?
And picture this — all of the ads were designed so they would disappear before anyone at Facebook could see them. They would get millions of views and then go away without a trace. Since Facebook has sent most of the people who police toxic material like this home for the duration of the crisis, the Russian ads were able to appear unimpeded.
If there was ever news that would knock the death toll and the ravages of the virus in New York City out of the top slot in the news rundown, that would be it. Here we go again, right?
Would you care? Probably, but not too many in the media would.
I can tell you that because it’s already happened and, well, you’re not hearing about it.
According to Vice, Chinese state media have been pumping a steady stream of ads into Facebook and Instagram which blame President Donald Trump for the coronavirus crisis and claim that apportioning any sort of responsibility for the virus’ spread to Beijing is racist and xenophobic.
“The undisclosed political ads, from Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, Global China Television Network (GCTN), and China Central Television (CCTV), all ran on the two platforms in recent months, targeting users around the world in English, Chinese, and Arabic, but they’ve only now been flagged by Facebook as being political,” Vice reported Monday.
“The ads ran without a political disclaimer, meaning they weren’t subject to the same oversights and didn’t show who they were targeting and who was paying for them. VICE News counted more than 55 ads from all four broadcasters in Facebook’s ad library archive.
“The company said many of the ads were not labeled as political and would simply have disappeared once they expired, making it virtually impossible to assess the full scale of China’s propaganda effort.”
Well, that’s a problem. According to Vice, one of the ads from the Global Times, a major Chinese propaganda outlet, questioned where the virus originated from and called the term “Chinese virus,” which the president has used to describe the outbreak, as “racist.”
In another one, Vice noted, Chinese state media giant Xinhua called the president’s decision to replace the term “coronavirus” with “Chinese virus” using a marker in his printed remarks “Racist in ink.”
One of the ads says that the “incessant smearing of China by some Western governments and media at the onset of the outbreak can be deemed another kind of epidemic,” which isn’t minimizing the Chinese government’s role in the pandemic whatsoever.
“From ‘Sick man of Asia’ to ‘Chinese virus,’ China’s efforts to fight #COVID19 were met with incessant defamation and stigmatization from the beginning,” the Facebook description reads.
“Here is a closer look on how China fights against Western ‘infodemic’ amid the outbreak. #WesternFallaciesDebunked.”
You look at that and laugh — and then realize how serious it is.
Most of the ads were Xi Jinping lovefests, praising his handling of the coronavirus while saying Trump made it worse. The study which claimed that 95 percent of infections could have been prevented had China acted decisively in the early days of the virus went unmentioned in the ads, as you might imagine.
None of the ads were flagged as political, however, which is kind of a big deal.
Political advertising is subject to stringent oversight by Facebook in markets like the United States and Europe. If an ad has a political disclaimer on it, viewers can see who paid for it and who it was targeted at.
In this case, nothing. Facebook acknowledged to Vice that some of the ads also ran “in countries in which Facebook does not require disclosure.”
And Facebook was unable to intervene since, according to Vice, the thousands of employees that do moderation are currently at home watching “Tiger King.” The social media giant is largely relying on its algorithms to police content.
That’s not working too well. Vice found 55 ads in the ad library archive of the four Chinese state broadcasters that were involved in the disinformation campaign.
That’s not the half of it, though. Once the ads expired, they disappeared, making them wholly impossible to trace, so we don’t really know how many there were in all.
These ads didn’t go unnoticed, either.
Remember the ad which questioned where the virus started and said the words “Chinese virus” were “racist?” That was viewed over a million times. Who knows how many eyes the other ads got?
“We are progressing on our plans to label state-controlled media pages on Facebook, including from China, and will have more to share on this soon,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
“We are continuing to work with publishers and third party experts on this issue to ensure that we get this right.”
Remember when Russia’s smattering of Facebook ads got us profoundly bothered? So much so that liberals declared that the Kremlin got Trump elected through targeted ads and other forms of election interference? China hasn’t hacked anyone’s email (yet), but their disinformation campaign is much more open and much more targeted at making our country look bad and our leader look worse.
Yet this story has gotten very little coverage. And yes, I understand we’re in one of those periods where everything is coming at us all of the time, but this is something that surely should have given people in newsrooms across America pause.
China is, without a doubt, interfering in our elections. Worse, they’re spreading disinformation about the origin of the novel coronavirus and their role in mitigating it.
The parts where China arrested doctors who dared tell the truth, where they suppressed evidence of human-to-human transmission, where they brutally suppressed their own people to get the problem under control after they refused to acknowledge it — all of that is erased in service of the almighty narrative of Chairman Xi.
If only the media cared as much about this as they did when Russia ran a few scattershot Facebook ad campaigns that might have hurt Hillary Clinton in some small, unmeasurable way.
Alas, they’re not only distracted, they’re perfectly willing to echo some of these messages. You hear the same things on CNN and MSNBC every day: Donald Trump is a racist for calling it the “Chinese virus,” China’s eradication of coronavirus is something to be commended and their inattention to it in the early days of the disease … well, what inattention?
There are plenty of stories that deserve our gaze right now, but this is definitely one of them. It desperately needs coverage.
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