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Doublethink Lab

Analysis: How Ukraine has been Nazified in the Chinese information space?

Jerry Yu, Analyst, Doublethink Lab | Chinese
Thanks to Sinopsis for translating this article into Ukrainian & Russian.

Photo credit: spoilt.exile (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Summary

  • Russian and Chinese state media and state-linked social media worked in tandem to influence public opinion in China, Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora in favour of the invasion of Ukraine on denazification grounds, analysis from Taiwan-based civil society organization Doublethink Lab (DTL) shows.
  • The analysis highlights the tug-of-war for influence across the Chinese diaspora and the ability of Chinese state media to shape public opinion even as the CCP government refrains from taking an official line.
  • Chinese-language Russian state media accounts pushed the denazification angle prior to the invasion, before Chinese state media (Global Times/CGTN etc.) picked up President Putin’s anti-NATO expansion reasoning upon the outbreak of hostilities, and later went on to focus on the denazification angle themselves, citing Russian government officials’ speeches and statements. Chinese and Russia state media have had cooperation agreements in place since 2015.
  • Chinese state-linked media blogs encouraged a sense of solidarity between Russia and China on the basis of mutual suffering at the hands of “foreign forces interfering in internal affairs” and foreign-funded Nazism.
  • Their efforts focus on a 2019 Facebook image picked up by Russian media (News Front/Rusvesna) of a Ukrainian veteran who participated in the anti-extradition march in Hong Kong. In 2019, Russian and Chinese state-linked media (Global Times/Guancha) jointly leveraged the image to push a false narrative suggesting that the West had funded Ukraine’s “Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion” to take part in the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests (against legal amendments that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China).
  • Since Feb. 26, when Russia came under Western economic sanctions and after Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Weibo accounts including the influential state-linked Guancha began recycling the 2019 Facebook image, supported by state-linked blogs reiterating the false claim that the U.S. funded the Ukrainian army’s neo-Nazi “Azov Battalion” to participate in the Hong Kong anti-extradition demonstrations.
  • By reactivating this nugget of disinformation, the topics of Ukraine, Nazism and foreign interference became linked in Chinese online communities and discourse, driving public support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
  • False narratives around Ukrainian support for the far-right are also being pushed on Facebook and YouTube in Taiwan, with pro-PRC politician Hou Han-ting and pro-China media personality Huang Chih-Hsien publishing false content related to the rise of Nazism in Ukraine.
  • The speed with which the topic was seeded into the Chinese information environment shows the ease with which Sino-Russian state media cooperation can sow disinformation by citing each other as sources and expanding on each other’s angles.
  • DTL keyword analysis across Weibo, Facebook and Twitter show how the content of accusing Ukraine of support for Nazism and reporting links between the “Azov Battalion” and the Hong Kong protest movement gained traction at different rates and with differing emphasis across the various platforms, with Weibo strongly more focused on the false Azov Battalion — HK link than Twitter or FB, where discussion of “Nazis” is much more frequent. Ultimately, even as Russian officials are banned on Western social media platforms, Chinese-linked media discourse continues to spread their propaganda to the Chinese diaspora, tarnishing Ukraine’s image among Chinese internet users.

Background

On Feb. 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a televised address establishing a historical basis for aggression against Ukraine related to the eastern encroachment of NATO and historical ill-feeling between the West and Russia. The speech posited NATO member countries’ support for far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine, “who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia,” as a justification for military action.

Russia’s early-war information operations sought to justify the invasion by focusing on Ukrainian links to neo-Nazism, painting Ukrainian political circles as dominated by Nazi ultra-nationalists and oligarchs, propped up by Western support, and corrupt to the point of preparedness to use Ukrainian citizens as human shields.

Kremlin propaganda also propounded the view that Ukrainian Nazis were intent on persecuting pro-Russian separatists in the (Putin-styled) Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, and that the people of these regions had asked for Russia to intervene on their behalf.

Ukrainian law enforcement agencies were falsely accused of cracking down on free speech, persecuting the political opposition, assassinating journalists and shutting down dissident media, while the Supreme Council (Ukraine’s unicameral parliament) was alleged to have introduced discriminatory anti-Russian policies, leading to the persecution of Russian compatriots.

Kremlin information operations focused on the activities of the Azov Battalion, a far-right extremist unit of Ukraine’s National Guard volunteer group, formed in 2014 out of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang, and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly (SNA) political party — Andriy Biletsky is both SNA leader and Azov Battalion founder.

The Azov Battalion came to prominence during its successful defence of the city of Mariupol against pro-Russian separatists in the 2014 Crimea conflict. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry then funded the volunteer group in acknowledgement of its success in repelling Russian forces and tacit admission that the official armed forces needed their support.

In light of this confluence of push factors, Russia had no choice but to launch a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”, preserve regional stability and deliver humanitarian assistance, according to the Russian state media.

That the Ukrainian government did indeed back a far-right volunteer force numbering no more than 2,000 members is the core of truth upon which Putin’s rotten narrative hinges. Putin does not explain the extenuating circumstances — a war of aggression in Crimea begun by his own government — that forced the Ukrainian government’s hand. Nor does Moscow media mention that the Ukrainian government in 2022 tightened laws to punish anti-Semitism and racial discrimination to check the spread of far-right ideology. In terms of popular support, Biletsky’s SNA won about 2.15% of the vote in the 2019 national congressional election, and did not obtain any seats in Congress; In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, won 73.22% of the vote in the presidential election of the same year.

So while it is true that there are far-right elements in Ukraine’s armed forces, their ideology exists on the very margins of mainstream politics — more isolated than similar representation in France and Germany — let alone government, and does not enjoy popular support.

State media cooperation unites Kremlin and Beijing narratives

Fig 01: Important Events

Doublethink Lab analysis shows that prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, discourse around “Ukrainian Nazis” was unfamiliar to Chinese-speaking communities, and the subject received no noteworthy attention in the Chinese media environment. Post-invasion, Chinese official media, blog and video platforms are awash with content related to Ukrainian Nazism. How did malicious and false messaging seeded in Russia over the course of several years transfer almost instantaneously into Chinese online discourse?

Cooperation between Chinese and Russian state media is a major factor. Russia Today (RT) in 2015 signed a cooperation agreement with China Central Television, and China Central Radio and Television have both cooperated with state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta [DG2] to jointly produce Sino-Russian headlines since 2018. In addition, Russian official media, including the Sputnik news agency, publish news in Chinese to Chinese readers and operate Weibo accounts.

Such agreements laid the groundwork for Chinese state media to rapidly pick up and quote reports from Russian media, including those pushing the link between the Ukrainian government and neo-Nazis. For example, RT’s Chinese-language Weibo reported Putin’s Feb 22. speech and linked to an article criticizing the Ukrainian government for supporting Nazism. Two days later, Sputnik’s Chinese service alleged that NATO supported Nazis in the Ukrainian government.

After Putin’s announcement of the special military operation on Feb. 24, Chinese broadcast and print media, including China News Network, Toutiao News, Guancha, Global Times, Xinhua and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to name just a few, all published content related to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s call with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. This content supported the notion that Russia was taking necessary security measures in response to the eastward expansion of the U.S. and NATO, and the contravention of the Minsk peace agreements.

Fig 02: Chinese official media and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promote the content of phone calls between the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers on Weibo (24/02/2022)

On Feb. 25, CGTN quoted Lavrov accusing the Ukrainian government of being Nazis. The next day, as Russia came under Western economic sanctions, influential state-linked Weibo accounts began to encourage a sense of solidarity between Russia and China on the basis of mutual suffering at the hands of “foreign forces interfering in internal affairs” and foreign-funded Nazism.

Their efforts focused on a 2019 Facebook image picked up by Russian media (News Front/ Rusvesna) of a Ukrainian veteran who participated in the anti-extradition march in Hong Kong.

Fig 03: Ukrainian veterans post about their participation in the Hong Kong protests on Facebook (01/12/2019)

In 2019, Chinese state-linked media (Global Times/Guancha) had leveraged the image to push a false narrative suggesting that the U.S. had funded Ukraine’s “Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion” to take part in the 2019–20 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests.

This claim has since been debunked by the European Union’s External Affairs Office’s EU vs Disinfo working group, which found no evidence that the U.S. was paying for the travel expenses of members of the Ukrainian far-right. The group cited the claim, from a single Russian blog, as one of “several recurrent Russian disinformation narratives portraying the U.S. and the West as supporters of extremism for geopolitical interests, Ukraine as a Nazi state, and the Hong Kong protests as illegitimate.”

Fig 04: The Global Times piggybacked Sputnik’s piece suggesting Ukrainian neo-Nazis were acting as reinforcements for Hong Kong rioters (03/12/2019)

Three days into the war, Weibo accounts including the influential state-linked Guancha Syndicate began recycling the 2019 Facebook image, supported by other state-link blogs reiterating the claims.

Fig 05: Guancha re-publishes the old articles linking Ukraine’s Azov Battalion to the Hong Kong protests (27/02/22).

This tactic successfully linked the discussion of Nazism and the longstanding trope of “foreign forces interfering in China’s internal affairs” in Chinese online discourse, influencing public opinion to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China’s Foreign Ministry has not taken an official position on the Ukrainian-Nazi angle, allowing it to maintain a position of plausible deniability around its support for Russia’s motives should Beijing attempt to act as a mediator in the conflict.

Notably, this is not the first time Russian and Chinese state media have reinforced each other’s narratives. In another example, Russian state-run TV station RT in January 2020 launched a documentary titled “Hong Kong Unmasked”, accusing the CIA, Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of playing a behind the scenes role in anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong.

Taiwan

Meanwhile in Taiwan’s relatively freer media environment, similar content began appearing on the Facebook accounts of prominent pro-China figures, starting with Wang Ping-Chung, a long-time advocate of unification with China. In a Feb. 22 post, concurrent with Putin’s speech establishing a basis for the invasion, Wang alleged that the Ukrainian government condoned the brutal massacres of Russians in the contested area of Eastern Ukraine by far-right Nazi forces.

Fig 06: Wang Ping-Chung shares unattributed photos and alleges the Ukraine government condoned a brutal massacre of Russians in eastern Ukraine by the Azov Battalion (22/02/22)

In the following days, similarly false narratives around Ukrainian Nazism proliferated across the Taiwan media environment. On Feb. 27, pro-China politician Hou Han-ting (YouTube) and pro-China media personality Huang Chih-Hsien (Facebook) published false content related to the rise of neo-Nazism and associated corruption in Ukraine. The timing of the posts roughly matches the emergence of similar material on Weibo.

At the time of writing, content accusing Ukraine of Nazism and reporting links between the Azov Battalion and the Hong Kong movement has been distributed across various Chinese social media and content farms, as well as video-based platforms such as Douyin, Xigua, and YouTube.

Keyword analysis

Doublethink Lab analysis crawled text content across Weibo, Facebook and Twitter from Feb. 22 to March 8 searching for the keywords “Azov Battalion” and “Nazi” (in both simplified and traditional characters). In the graphics below, the Y-axis for Weibo shows relative changes in popularity of keywords, where 100 is the highest point and 0 is the lowest; For Facebook, the Y-axis represents total interactions (for an explanation of how likes, shares, and comments are counted, please refer to Crowdtangle); the Y-axis of Twitter is the total number of tweets.

Fig 07: Trend graph showing cross-platform popularity of keywords through time for Weibo, l Facebook (total interactions) and Twitter (number of Tweets)
Fig 08: Comparative popularity of keywords on Weibo and timing of important posts

The analysis shows that on Weibo, the term “Azov Battalion” is much more popular than “Nazis”, and was given strong impetus by Guancha’s March 1 video, and a March 3 post by the Communist Youth League account, introducing the group and linking its activities to the Hong Kong anti-extradition law protests.

Fig 09: The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League introduces the Azov Battalion as a Nazi organization and links it with the Hong Kong Anti-extradition protests (3/3/22)

At the time, Russian armor was approaching Kyiv and was preparing for the ongoing siege, and Russian forces had occupied the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. On March 3, the Sputnik news agency reported that Ukrainian neo-Nazis shot at Chinese citizens, leading to another uptick in attention to the keywords on Weibo.

The high point of the “Nazi” discussion was on February 28, driven by posts from the Russian Embassy in China and major Chinese media accusing a Ukrainian Nazi government of brutally torturing captured Russian soldiers. Importantly, there is no evidence that Weibo censored the word “Nazi”.

Fig 10: Various Chinese state media report that captured Russian soldiers were captured by Ukrainian Nazis and tortured (2022/2/28)
Fig 11: Facebook interaction trends and important posts

Facebook and Twitter show a completely opposite trend, with the term “Nazi” attracting far more attention than the “Azov Battalion”. Both platforms are banned in China, and Chinese-speaking users are mostly from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the Chinese community in Southeast Asia and overseas.

It is conceivable that posts relating to the Azov Battalion resonate more strongly on Weibo because the user base, guided by the government’s various tools of censorship and control, gravitates more strongly towards content that carries familiar messages, such as “being funded by the West” or “involved in the riots in Hong Kong”, than Chinese users in other regions.

On Facebook, the initial wave of discussion about Nazism peaked on Feb. 25, the day after the war began. In Taiwan, one of the more popular articles we found pertaining to the war was a blog post on Mindi World News which aggregated global news about the Ukrainian-Russian war, and speeches made by Putin for the Taiwanese audience. The high point of the second wave was Feb. 27, driven by popular posts from pro-China Facebook accounts such as Underworld, Hou Han-ting, and Huang Chih-Hsien. Posts about the Nazification of Ukraine led to another wave of discussion. Taipei City Councilman Chiu Wei-Chieh expressing his personal views on whether Ukraine was Nazi, arguing that a small number of right-wing groups in Ukraine in the past are not enough to represent Ukraine as a whole now, was the most popular post, and brought the discussion to a crescendo on March 2. A fourth wave peaked on March 7, when pro-China politicians Tsai Cheng-yuan and Chiu Yi made some pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian remarks.

Conclusion

The analysis shows that while references linking Ukraine and Nazism did exist within the Chinese information environment prior to Putin’s televised speech on Feb. 22, they were not frequent. After Chinese state media published the conversation between the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, influential Weibo accounts began to repost the Azov Battalion conspiracy theory, helping drive the discussion. Despite heated exchanges across official media by patriotic netizens, as of three weeks into the war, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not publicly discussed the issue.

Similarly obfuscated messaging also appeared around the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong. In 2019, Russian media reported that Western countries sponsored members of the Azov Battalion and aided the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong, reactivating the familiar trope of foreign forces interfering in China’s internal affairs. Chinese media immediately quoted Russia’s statement and expanded the discourse. The tendency is clear: one side creates and the other expands, distorting information in a way that is beneficial to both countries.

In Mandarin-speaking Taiwan, discussion around Nazism was initially driven by influential figures analyzing Putin’s speech. The analysis shows that Taiwan’s protection of free speech allows a cross-section of opinions to flourish, and within that pro-China discourse pushing particular points of information is not unusual.

As various media and internet platforms ban Russian officials and Russian propaganda channels, the impact of discussions on Weibo on the wider Chinese-speaking diaspora should not be underestimated. Chinese discourses continue to spread Russian political propaganda through Weibo, Douyin, YouTube and other platforms, creating a negative image of Ukraine among Chinese users.

Doublethink Lab would like to thank David Green for his editorial support with this article.

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Doublethink Lab focuses on mapping the online information operation mechanisms as well as the surveillance technology exportation and digital authoritarianism.

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Doublethink Lab

Doublethink Lab

Doublethink Lab focuses on mapping the online information operation mechanisms as well as the surveillance technology exportation and digital authoritarianism.

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