Who Started The Rumours Of Coup In China?
BOOM investigated these rumours and found them to be a result of an extensive inauthentic campaign fuelled by multiple Indian accounts and some mainstream Indian news channels.
Last weekend, the internet was abuzz with massive rumours of a coup d'état against Chinese President Xi Jinping. Most of these rumours suggested that Xi has been put under house arrest, and that Li Qiaoming, former General of the People's Liberation Army, is set to replace him. Some rumours even suggested that Xi was executed.
BOOM investigated these rumours and found them to be a result of an extensive inauthentic campaign fuelled by multiple Indian accounts, some mainstream Indian news channels like India TV, Republic Bharat and Zee News, along with right-wing website TFIPost.
Flights Cancelled, And Xi Unseen
There were some inciting events that led these rumours to take shape.
First there were rumours of flight cancellations. Social media users like United States-based human rights activist of Chinese origin Jennifer Zeng started pointing out how China was suddenly seeing massive cancellations of domestic flights - as high as 60%. A user also suggested how there is "absolutely no flight movement over China", while posting a screenshot of flight tracking website FlightRadar24 of the Chinese airspace showing very little flight movement.
While these figures were true, they were misrepresented and taken out of context. Associated Press analysed these claims, and found that the domestic flight cancellation rate of 60% in China is not at all sudden, but consistent with the high rate of cancellations experienced by the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the FlightRadar24 screenshot, it reported the following:
"Ian Petchenik, director of communications for FlightRadar24, said the images appearing to capture the service's dashboard over the weekend — showing the airspace nearly empty over China — were likely taken during overnight hours of low flight traffic in China. He added that they also may reflect the fact that FlightRadar24's display can only show so many flights on screen at a time, meaning if a user zooms out far enough, the number of flights in an area will seemingly disappear until they focus closer into a specific geographic area."
Then came the the fact that Xi was not seen in public since September 16, following his return from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Social media rumours suggested that he was detained at the airport upon his return to Beijing, which was further reported as news by India TV and TFI Post. Xi finally made an appearance at an exhibition in Beijing on Tuesday, and according to reports his absence was consistent with China's quarantine rules for incoming international travellers.
Yet another important inciting event is the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16, where Xi will be seeking an unprecedented third term. Ahead of this gathering, Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security, Sun Lijun, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, for challenging Xi's authority, just weeks ahead of Communist Party leadership congress.
Social Media Superstorm
Jennifer Zeng, the US-based human rights activist who had earlier posted the out-of-context claim about the flight cancellations shared a video last Friday showing military vehicles passing through a highway, while claiming that it shows a military procession "as long as 80 KM", while mentioning the rumours of Xi's house arrest, and his removal as the head of PLA.
Click here to view an archive of the above tweet, and here to view the video.
Zeng is known practitioner of Falun Gong - a neo-religious movement whose members had faced persecution in China. Falun Gong came under criticism for its media entity The Epoch Times, which had reportedly spread misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccines, along with QAnon conspiracy theories and misinformation related to the 2020 US election.
Zeng has also been fact-checked in the past for sharing false information, particularly those targeting China. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zeng had shared a video of a victim of a road accident with the false claim that she was shot dead by the police in China for trying to escape quarantine. She also shared a cremation video to falsely claim that COVID-19 patients were being cremated alive in China.
Her claims around the coup against Xi were swiftly amplified by a handle named Nepal Correspondence, which describes itself as a 'platform for India - Nepal dialogue to boost relationship and trade'. By Saturday, hashtags like #chinacoup and #chinamilitarycoup were trending on Twitter along with #xijinping.
BOOM analysed the tweets made on Saturday with the most popular hashtag #chinacoup using the Twitter SNA - a Twitter analytics module provided by Google Chrome's InVid extension.
We looked at 20,135 instances of the hashtag being shared in this 24-hour period, out of which only 11 per cent were tweets (amounting to 2319 tweets), and 89 per cent were retweets (amounting to 17,816 retweets). This suggests that the trend was highly inflated with mostly retweets.
We also looked at the handles that were retweeted the most. The handle that stood out the most was that of Hindi news channel India TV, whose reporting of the unfounded rumours became the most widely shared tweet with #chinacoup last Saturday, thus providing further legitimacy to these rumours.
The second most retweeted handle was @legitvirat - user who has since been suspended for violating Twitter's community guidelines.
However, we were able to find an archive of the highly shared tweet made by the handle using Wayback Machine. The caption of this tweet read, "The PLA has taken control of China. #XiJinping had been put under house arrest. General #LiQiaoming is supposed to be the new president of #China. After this #chinacoup, two happiest person in China RN are:", and it showing images of Li and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who had disappeared from public eye last year following regulatory crackdown of his company Alibaba Goup, by the Chinese state.
A closer look at the tweets made by @legitvirat revealed that it had posted content that were pro-Russia, pro-Putin, pro-Hindutva and in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Twitter SNA also revealed an interesting fact - two of the handles who posted the most amount of tweets using the hashtag #chinacoup were IndusBestFurniture (@Apki1Pasand) and Jezz Merica (@MericaJezz).
However, the posts they made using this hashtag had nothing to do with Xi or China, they were instead selling products like furniture, and cooking utensils, and appliances, while using the trending #chinacoup to gain traction. This, in turn, fuelled the trend further.
You can find archives of a few such tweets here, here, here and here.
As rumours of the coup were spreading through the internet, we also found some blatantly false claims spreading dis/misinformation on this topic.
Disinformation And Misreporting
One such claim was spread by user Manas Mishra (@manasmishraTNO) who had also shared the claim about the flight cancellation with misleading context. This user shared a seven-year-old video of a series of explosions at the Tianjin port of China with the claim that it shows recent explosions in Beijing in the wake of a coup against Xi.
This claim was further shared by multiple users across Twitter and Facebook, making it viral on social media.
Also Read:Clip Of 2015 Tianjin Explosions Shared As Beijing Coup Against Xi Jinping
Yet another instance of misinformation was blatant misreporting from Republic Bharat, when they ran images and tweets from a satirical thread by a Beijing correspondent of German news website Der Spiegal as breaking news. The correspondent, Georg Fahrion, had shared a series of images from Beijing - which showed business as usual in China's capital city - while joking about a coup taking place.
Also Read:Republic Bharat Reports Satire Thread On China Coup As Breaking News
Yet another website to report on the coup was Indian right-wing website TFI Post,
What Is The Situation Like In China Really?
While certain Indian media outlets reported the unfounded rumours of the coup over the weekend, we could not find a single report by any non-Indian outlet.
Fahrion's satirical thread was the first clear indication that things looked absolutely normal on ground, and that there was no indication of a coup taking place. In one of his replies to the thread he refuted the rumours of a military takeover.
Yet another Beijing-based reporter of an international media outlet, who did not wish to be named, confirmed to BOOM that what Fahrion had said - that nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the capital city over the weekend.
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