For many in the United States, precisely who is to blame for the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the world depends largely on where you sit on the ideological spectrum.
For those tuning in to conservative outlets, China’s censorship, dithering, and underreporting in its early response are chiefly to blame, while the subsequent failures of the Trump administration to deal with the spread are blithely ignored. For a liberal audience, U.S. President Donald Trump’s blundering response takes up the lion’s share of coverage, with China’s later successful containment efforts a useful foil to Trump’s incompetence.
On Twitter, Chinese diplomats have been promoting a conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army brought COVID-19 to China. Trump responded by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” and the White House is reportedly mobilizing multiple federal agencies to mount a communications plan that accuses Beijing of orchestrating a “cover-up” and creating the global pandemic.
Last Friday, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Mike Gallagher decided to talk to the manager, complaining directly to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a public letter urging him to ban Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials from the site. The CCP was “waging a massive propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and whitewash the Party’s lies to the Chinese people and the world,” they wrote.
Chinese diplomats “have tweeted lies that the Chinese government has been completely transparent throughout the crisis and bought the world time to prepare for the outbreak; a theory largely discredited and debunked by a recent study,” the lawmakers wrote.
But upon closer look, that study, by Shengjie Lai of the University of Southampton, makes a more nuanced point than the lawmakers suggest. The study shows that if China acted earlier, instead of hiding the outbreak, global contagion could have been reduced by 95 percent. But it also shows that “China’s comprehensive response, in a relatively short period, greatly reduced the potential health impact of the outbreak.”
The truth, it seems, is harder to pin down than either side would like—and certainly beyond the ability of Twitter to adjudicate.
Insofar as they are asking Twitter to ban CCP officials for deliberately spreading misinformation on its platform, Sasse and Gallagher are on decidedly shaky ground, especially given the party they represent.
After all, it is Trump himself who has repeatedly weaponized conspiracy theories on Twitter, including the claim, later repeated on his campaign trail, that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
On Monday, a Twitter spokesperson told The Hill that misinformation about the coronavirus spread by Chinese officials does not violate Twitter’s policies, pointing to the company’s position of giving public figures broad exemptions.
“Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the site reads.
Sasse and Gallagher are on firmer ground when, in the letter, they ask Dorsey, “What is Twitter’s rationale for granting platform access to representatives of a government that blocks its domestic population from accessing Twitter?”
In fact, the lawmakers could have gone further to ask why, as Bloomberg reported last year, Twitter has been training Chinese officials in how amplify their messages—giving them special insights into how to fully exploit a platform that is blocked off to their own citizens.
That help included Twitter employees assisting Chinese diplomats “with support, like verifying their accounts and training them on how to amplify messages, including with the use of hashtags,” Bloomberg reported.
The blunt solution to ban CCP officials from the platform that’s being pushed by Sasse and Gallagher—and earlier floated by others, including David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression—is tempting.
After all, as my own research has shown, legitimate public diplomacy efforts of foreign embassies are routinely censored on Weibo—China’s version of Twitter.
The danger, of course, is that a retaliation like that runs the risk of blindly mirroring Beijing’s censorship logic. China could very well respond by blocking foreign embassy accounts from Weibo, wiping out a channel—compromised as it is by intense censorship—that foreign governments can still put to some good use. Look no further than the tit-for-tat expulsion of workers at Chinese news agencies in the United States and American newspapers in China for an idea of how things could easily spiral.
Not to mention the fact that Twitter—which once described itself as being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” and, unlike Google and Facebook, reportedly refused to take part in the semi-secret U.S. government surveillance program PRISM leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013—is very unlikely to bow to the lawmakers’ demands.
Dorsey clearly telegraphed his commitment to Twitter’s free-speech principles when he personally conducted a Q&A with Snowden, in exile in Russia, in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration in December 2016. You can’t tackle fake news with a referee, Snowden told Dorsey in that interview, arguing that the answer was that users collectively scrutinize one another.
Yet recent history tells us this isn’t a sufficient approach. Twitter is rife with disinformation and misinformation, and the crowd-sourced scrutiny that Snowden is referring to becomes harder to do when, as is the case with many of these Chinese diplomats, the very people needing scrutiny from the hive mind are blocking any critic they find on the platform.
As a principle, the social media accounts of public officials are important forums for the public to discuss public policy, and—just like Trump—Chinese officials shouldn’t be allowed to curate the social media environment to suit their purposes.
Short of banning the diplomats, something still clearly needs to be done. Despite being officially banned, many in China have long used VPNs to access Twitter. Increasingly, though, moderate Chinese voices are being hounded off the platform, and the only ones left are diplomats and rabid nationalists who toe the party line and attack anyone critical of the CCP. By refusing to flash a red card, the refs at Twitter are enabling a very skewed view of Chinese public opinion. They’re enabling propaganda.
Instead of kicking them off, Twitter authorities need to ensure that authoritarian governments like China aren’t cheating. Twitter has taken concrete steps to limit misinformation on the platform before, including last week when it expanded its policy around coronavirus misinformation to include a wider amount of content. In 2018, it said it would not allow people to use software to simultaneously perform other actions such as liking or retweeting from multiple accounts.
It needs to go further—not by banning these Chinese diplomats, but by ensuring that they’re not shielded from criticism behind their block buttons.
Twitter’s core principles should not be eroded but expanded. It can do this by taking three steps.
First, and most obvious, Twitter should make it clear that it won’t actively train officials from countries that block off the platform to their own citizens. Second, it should state that if a country doesn’t allow its own citizens to use the platform, Twitter will label that clearly on the officials’ accounts and on their posts. Third, Twitter should disable the ability of officials from these countries to block other users from scrutinizing their messages.
No doubt Twitter has other tools at its disposal, but these modest steps are a good start to signal to the wider Twitter community that China’s diplomatic spin is happening at the same time that the voices of more than 1.3 billion Chinese citizens are barred from joining the conversation.
Twitter can’t do much about the CCP’s decision to exclude its own people from the conversation, but it can help ensure that Beijing’s diplomats don’t transform its global public square into their own echo chamber.