Digital Directions: April 14, 2022


Insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

  • Global tech giants and Brazil’s judiciary have inked agreements on steps to counter election disinformation;
  • Analysts consider the roots and implications of Russia’s closing digital ecosystem;
  • Spyware makers based in democracies are under fire for their authoritarian ties.
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How China is Selling Its Muslim Genocide to the Arab World

As evidence of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) systemic human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has grown, Beijing’s disinformation and propaganda machines are working harder to deny and obscure the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) culpability in these mass atrocities. Under the “Xinjiang is a wonderful place” slogan, the PRC spent the better part of 2021 holding a series of press conferences and leveraging unlabeled government affiliates on social media to convince Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere of its propagandistic narratives about Xinjiang. Our team at Miburo, a disinformation research and analysis company, has tracked these conferences and their targets in the past year, finding that dozens of countries have been targeted with overt and covert propaganda that whitewashes the genocide in Xinjiang.

Egypt has been a notable target of the PRC’s influence campaign. In addition to several CCP officials, the conferences featured high-profile Egyptian officials and a hand-picked member of the Uyghur community from Xinjiang who delivered carefully scripted remarks. Marcel Samir, an al-Tagammu’ party MP, complained the United States had “ignored the achievements of” the PRC in Xinjiang. Al Ahram journalist Mahmoud Sa’d Diab used his speech at the event to extol the virtue of Xinjiang’s cotton, cheeses, and fruits—ignoring the well-documented evidence of forced labor in the region. Diab and Al Ahram are symptoms of China’s particularly successful courtship of Egyptian media; sponsored vacations and the inclusion of Al Ahram as a member of Beijing’s Belt and Road News Network (BRNN) evince the CCP’s charm offensive in Egypt and beyond.

Beijing also relies on a growing number of unlabeled government-affiliated social media influencers to spread the CCP’s Xinjiang propaganda online. Our team at Miburo discovered that these influencers have extensive reach: They produce content in 38 languages to target over 180 countries and boast over 67 million followers. Fayhaa Wang, a Chinese lifestyle influencer who speaks fluent Arabic, is among them. Until recently, Wang remained unlabeled as an employee of Chinese state media on most major social media platforms, misleading her more than 1.5 million followers while giving the impression that she was an independent voice. In fact, she is an employee of China Radio International (CRI), a state-owned outlet that is a key pillar of China’s Grand Overseas Propaganda campaign (大外宣).  Last May, after attending a “Stories from the Xinjiang Citizens” press briefing, Wang proclaimed that the event’s discussion “points to a lack of ‘genocide’ which has been alleged by some Western media.” The post is still up on her social media profile.

The PRC has used this playbook with some success in several Muslim-majority nations, such as Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey. Both private and public sector stakeholders must take steps to address it. Social media companies must label PRC state media and affiliates on their platforms; civil society organizations in the Muslim and Arab world need to ramp up pressure on both businesses and governments to speak out against the CCP’s ongoing atrocities against the Uyghurs; and lawmakers in liberal democracies can live up to their foundational values by continuing to publicize evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Without these countermeasures, there is scant hope of ending mass atrocity in Xinjiang or of curbing Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history in real time.

Nick Monaco (@_NickMonaco) is Chief Innovation Officer and Director of China Research, and Colin Eide (@_Eide) is Director of Analysis and leads Middle East and North Africa research at Miburo. The above is adapted from a Forum Power 3.0 essay “How China is Selling its Muslim Genocide to the Arab World.”

–Nick Monaco and Colin Eide, Miburo



SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS PARTNER WITH BRAZIL’S ELECTORAL COURT: In the lead up to Brazil’s presidential elections this October, platforms including Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have signed agreements with the country’s Superior Electoral Court to combat misinformation. They will direct users to official election information or setting up new reporting channels. Telegram’s commitment follows a two-day ban after the platform failed to follow several orders from Brazil’s Supreme Court. Misinformation that has spread on WhatsApp and Telegram aided the campaign of Brazil’s current far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION SEEKS TO DIVIDE EUROPE OVER REFUGEES: As countries like Poland welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees, pro-Kremlin operatives have attempted to stoke divisions between Poles and Ukrainians. On Polish social media, fake, anonymous, and fringe accounts appeal to racist sentiment and claim that refugees are causing crime and enjoying special privileges.

VISUALIZING GLOBAL DISINFORMATION OPERATIONS: The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has launched a new website and paper that provide a visual breakdown of publicly available data regarding state-linked information operations on Twitter since 2015. Using data released by Twitter, the new tool shows that China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela are the most active sources of disinformation operations targeting both domestic and foreign populations.

“The way in which a technical standard is defined can in some cases determine whether it will facilitate or hinder political control, or reinforce or undermine privacy protection[.] In this sense, standards help set up the pathways for the development of future technologies and their uses.”  — John Seaman, IFRI



WILL RUSSIA BUILD A DIGITAL WALLED GARDEN? With major Western tech companies departing the Russian market and the Kremlin blocking Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov examine how Russia’s “digital sovereignty” ambitions have evolved around one primary goal: controlling the speech of ordinary Russians. While Moscow has long been forced to rely on a fragmented model of internet censorship—carried out by thousands of ISPs—new capacities may be allowing it to move “toward a centralized, Chinese-style approach.”

WHEN WESTERN COMPANIES POWER DIGITAL AUTHORITARIANISM: The German-based spyware firm FinFisher, currently under investigation for alleged unlicensed sales of its powerful phone-hacking tool, has filed for bankruptcy. FinFisher malware was used against political dissidents in Turkey, and Citizen Lab research shows it was likely also deployed by governments in Ethiopia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela, among others. Reports of financial strain on Israeli spyware maker NSO Group, which is facing lawsuits from Meta and Apple, also emerged this week. Recently leaked documents revealed how Finnish mobile maker Nokia offered technical support that helped a government surveillance system.

RESPONDING TO CHINA’S STANDARD-SETTING IN TECH: In a recently published ChinaFile discussion, experts consider Beijing’s state-driven, intensive approach to international tech standards bodies, a topic the Forum explored in 2021 with Samantha Hoffman in our Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series. Democracies face the challenge of stepping up coordination on this front while preserving their own multistakeholder approach. Contributors also assess the PRC’s current level of influence in standards organizations, and the European Commission’s announcement earlier this year of a new Standardization Strategy.



Ukraine and Global Authoritarian Influence: As the brutal invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, the Journal of Democracy compiled eight articles on Russia and Ukraine, and NED Vice President Christopher Walker authored an article on “The Kleptocratic Sources of Russia’s Conduct” in American Purpose. Additionally, NED board member Anne Applebaum provided testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on how democracies can combat authoritarianism’s rise.


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