The United States Needs to up Its Game
Compared with the ponderous and sanitized material produced by official sources, meme culture (catchy, visual, anonymously generated online content that can be easily copied and distributed) is way ahead in pointing out discrepancies in Chinese communication and narrative concerning COVID-19. Note the interactions on these tweets from the U.S. and Chinese embassies in Poland:
20 April 2020
Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: “US, China and China CDC (CCDC) flags Blue-jing” by the CDC Global under CC BY 2.0.
By contrast, the U.S. tweet on the Katyń massacre, one of the most tragic events in 20th century Polish history, received 57 comments, 232 retweets, and 993 likes.
U.S. communication has been ineffective in countering Chinese propaganda, and in preserving a positive American international image. Yet, meme culture has highlighted the shift in Chinese Communist Party tactics from soft-power promotion to a more extensive use of hard and smart power.
Beijing has used the pandemic to build bastions of influence in international organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has grovellingly assessed the Chinese steps as “remarkable,” a “bold approach” and “perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history” — while turning a blind eye to early withheld information about the timeline and severity of the outbreak.
Right now, the CCP is targeting Taiwan, a country that is barred from joining the WHO, and whose offer of international aid to fight COVID-19 already angered Beijing. A top-level WHO expert, Dr. Bruce Aylward (one of the team leaders of the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19) bluntly refused to answer a question from a Hong Kong journalist concerning Taiwan’s role, sparking a storm of internet criticism on WHO leadership — and threats to the Hong Kong broadcaster for its impudence in posing the question.
The U.S. should dust off its cold war communication tools and adapt them to a digital world, disseminating arguments, facts, and stories that highlight its international leadership in the global response to COVID-19. This should include the use of friendly user-generated content such as memes in semi-official communication. The content is already out there and other countries such as Canada have already pioneered this approach, using light-hearted and punchy tools to troll Russian foreign policy.