Hacked Russian files disclose Russia-China propaganda agreement

Russian and Chinese media companies and government representatives agreed to share news and social content under the bilateral pact signed in 2021.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a Russian defense ministry spokesperson revived debunked claims about an alleged US-funded bioweapons initiative in Ukraine, accusing Ukrainian labs of conducting experiments with viral diseases. This fake seemed to be hilarious, but the disinformation impact was severe.

Russian government disinformation is a long-standing strategy. But China supported Moscow in its propaganda efforts during Russia’s war against Ukraine. Chinese officials and media outlets quickly picked up the Russian fake news and lies, which then developed, like the one on the Biolabs story.

The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times produced two eye-catching covers, one of which included a quote from Russian President Putin and one of which had a source that included the Russian Sputnik news agency.

The cover yelled, “What is the U.S. hiding in the Biolabs found in Ukraine?” The idea that the Covid pandemic may have started in a lab experiment outside of China had been promoted for months by the Chinese government and media organizations.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, analysts have noticed a blending of Russian and Chinese media narratives. Documents discovered in a cache of hacked emails from Russia’s state broadcaster VGTRK show that China and Moscow have vowed to collaborate in media content by signing cooperation agreements at the ministerial level. Some of the convergence was not accidental and occurred when storylines benefited both authoritarian states’ goals.

Russia-China cooperation on news coverage and storylines is a top priority for both administrations, as stated in a bilateral agreement signed in July 2021. Leading Russian and Chinese government and media executives met to discuss various news projects and joint partnerships, including exchanging news content, sharing digital media techniques, and co-producing television programs.

The two parties agreed to “further collaborate in the field of information exchange, fostering objective, comprehensive, and factual coverage of the most important world events” as part of the propaganda pact. Russia and China also outlined plans for cooperation on online and social media, an arena that both countries have used to spread misinformation.

VGTRK’s email server was hacked when hackers targeted more than 50 Russian businesses and government institutions in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 13 gigabytes of records from the intrusions have been made public on the transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets website. 

It includes information about Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group fighting in Ukraine, founded and directed by Evgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin. A group of journalistic organizations, led by The Intercept and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, was assembled to investigate the files.

Large state media outlets, online media organizations, and private sector businesses are all included in the 2021 pact. The Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which offers a streaming service, Migu Video, a gaming firm owned by China Mobile, and SPB TV, a Swiss-based streaming service managed by a Russian individual, were among the signatories.

TASS and Xinhua, two state-run international news agencies, agreed to share reporting. In contrast, other state-run media outlets consented to release country-specific supplements.

According to a report by Russian opposition media Meduza, China Media Group, a state-owned media conglomerate whose coverage is mentioned several times in the agreement, sources for more than 100 articles per month published by Russian state media, including the official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, mention China. According to emails that have been stolen, several journalists who worked for the Russian official media supported Chinese storylines.

After the invasion of Ukraine, when Chinese media repeated the Russian government’s talking points on the war, Russia may have increased the benefits. In the spring of 2022, the stolen emails come to an end. But over the past few months, the Russian government has repeatedly requested that a committee be established to look into the Biolabs conspiracy hypothesis at the UN Security Council. The Chinese press boosted its efforts.

These efforts in spreading state-sponsored propaganda and fake news destroy the credibility of such news agencies as TASS and Xinhua and, simultaneously, are worrisome.

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