Xi Jinping overthrown? Why the craziest rumors about China are so easy to spread
Western audiences tend to believe the weirdest things they hear about China, even without any justification
Over the past weekend, unsubstantiated rumors have gone viral on Twitter claiming Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been overthrown in a military coup and placed under house arrest. As evidence, a video was released claiming to show military vehicles in China.
To no one’s surprise, there was no truth to the story at all. It was fake news. But that didn’t stop the story from trending, going around the world, and making a lot of people believe.
Some mainstream media, and especially Indian media, also reported on the story.
The rumor originated from several accounts linked to the Falun Gong movement, a conservative Chinese anti-communist religious group, which since being banned in China even in the 1990s, has become known for its sporadic misinformation regarding the country.
The organization itself is probably one of the deepest social media manipulators in the world. He reportedly used thousands of accounts on various platforms, aggressively lobbying for Donald Trump’s re-election and spending millions in the process. This is not a joke.
This completely false story about a coup in China is not the first that these dedicated disinformation machines have pulled off, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, it is common for all sorts of misconceptions and misinformation regarding the country to go viral. Generally, these are video clips taken out of context.
Why is that? Because Westerners will believe almost anything they are told about China. As a country perceived as an incomprehensible and feared country « other », China is a frequent subject of Western paranoia, prejudice, stereotyping and mystery.
It also comes with the mistaken assumption that China’s own people are « kept in the dark » Where « don’t know what’s going on ». This leads to disinformation spreaders being able to present their videos often out of context as exclusive leaks, reveals or secret content.
Some people have even made a whole career out of it. The situation has only worsened in recent years as Western audiences have been aggressively fed a narrative that the Chinese government poses a threat to Western-led world domination and turned into a crunch – political mitten.
Therefore, while fake news peddlers about China on social media are nothing new, they have found increasing influence, attention and relevance in spreading fake news about the country, with a target audience of ‘Gullible Westerners.
During the pandemic, many people truly believed that China forcibly welded people into their homes to keep them quarantined. Time and again, the methods amounted to short, out-of-context video clips misrepresented as something else.
Yet do social media platforms, and Western media in general, care? Or are they trying to do something about it? Absolutely not. If you follow their narrative, the only people spreading disinformation and lies on an industrial scale are not Falun Gong or other shady organizations, but in fact China itself, as well as Russia.
While some accounts have carte blanche to push lies that reinforce Western narratives demonizing certain countries, Twitter walk with US government-funded organizations such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) to identify accounts allegedly operated by the Chinese government and ban them.
Similarly, more and more accounts are labeled as « China » Where « Russia” “state-affiliated media,” while links to given websites are labeled with disclaimers. This unilateral enforcement policy implicitly assumes that there is a threat « outside » of the Western-centric world, but none of the world « on the inside ». Only China and Russia will deceive you, not those who oppose it.
But the reality is much, much different. The fact that a ridiculous and complete lie can go viral on Twitter without any effort to counter it is a dramatic example of how easily Westerners are misled when it comes to China-related issues.
They think they are enlightened and truthful, but they will believe anything as long as it is framed in a clear framework. « Friend or enemy » plan, and the pernicious influence of cults such as Falun Gong in doing so is never taken seriously.