Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Foreign State-Backed Media Criticize the U.S. and Big Tech After Capitol Storming
Foreign State-Backed Media Criticize the U.S. and Big Tech After Capitol Storming

Foreign State-Backed Media Criticize the U.S. and Big Tech After Capitol Storming

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

January 18, 2021

In the wake of the riots and violent storming of the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, foreign state-sponsored media outlets from Russia, Iran and China took the opportunity to criticize the U.S. in coverage and, in the case of Russia and China, vilify Big Tech’s response to the day’s events. Stories from all three countries highlighted themes of U.S. hypocrisy, chaos and violence of the capitol storming, but in the aftermath Russia and China also sought to amplify anti-Big Tech themes and narratives, a divisive issue used to further stoke tensions among American audiences and pit them against the most advanced global companies. 

While Iranian coverage focused on criticizing President Trump and the U.S. as a global leader, Russian and Chinese state-backed coverage featured anti-Big Tech themes of censorship, hypocrisy, Silicon Valley’s boundless power, and American tech companies’ alleged bias against conservative voices. Such themes and narratives have long been common in Russia’s state coverage of the U.S. and American society, but appears to be an increasingly common theme in Chinese coverage in its information war with the U.S. as well. China took the opportunity to message anti-Big Tech narratives in an attempt to draw a comparison to the U.S.’s response to the Hong Kong protests, a strategy employed before by China amid the nationwide protests concerning the death of George Floyd. 

American social media companies, in an effort to quickly remove accounts associated with promoting or inciting violence were portrayed as hypocritical, limiting free speech, and, according to one RT op-ed, “more powerful than any government.” Articles like RT’s “Coincidence? Big Tech censorship comes after MAGA at Capitol ‘conveniently’ offers justification, Emily Ratajkowski & others say” illustrate Russia’s conspiratorial take on Big Tech’s more aggressive approach to accounts and content associated with the January 6 events. The Global Times’s “What would US media say if Capitol riot took place in a rival country?” shows China’s attempts to mock the U.S. and promote itself as a more sincere global leader. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, took to Twitter to suggest that social media companies were politically motivated in suspending Trump’s account, writing that although tech companies “didn’t want to ban Trump at all” they “must cooperate” with political forces.

As tech and social media companies continue to respond to social media manipulation, the spread of disinformation, and the online components to events like the January 6 capitol storming, moderation—already a controversial issue—has become increasingly divisive among Americans. Tech and social media companies must proceed cautiously: Foreign adversaries will continue to capitalize on domestic divisions over Big Tech and its role, criticizing efforts to limit incitement to violence or the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. In the case of Russia, sowing doubt about Big Tech’s intentions, moderation policies and influence serves to deflect from its own manipulation of online platforms and increase divides in audiences it seeks to influence. Such criticisms by China attempt to portray the Chinese model of governance as more effective than the American one.

Anti-Big Tech themes already play a central role in foreign narratives seeking to denigrate the U.S. and American tech companies. In 2021, surely this trend will continue. Consistency and transparency in social media moderation and tech policy, a decrease in American-born mis- and disinformation, and a cooling of the American political environment will all help combat such messaging in the future.