- Chinese state media promoted a conspiracy theory about the US stealing aid for earthquake victims.
- The claim was picked up by Iran and pro-Russia influencers, reaching over a million users on social media.
- The false claims were based on US soldiers helping to distribute humanitarian aid in Turkey.
Back in February, Chinese state media was boasting of how Beijing had stepped up to provide Turkey with much-needed humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the deadly February 6 earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Turkey and northern Syria, including what an English-language arm of the Communist Party described as “20 metric tons of urgently needed cotton tents.”
But by March, state-run news service China Radio International was shocked that Chinese aid ended up in Turkey, and instead claimed in an anti-American conspiracy theory that aid had been stolen from a separate humanitarian shipment to Syria. This claim has since been picked up by the Iranian government and pro-Russia influencers, reaching hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram.
According to the state-run China Radio International, not even the most cynical anti-imperialist “would have thought that the US military would even seize the relief supplies sent by China to the earthquake zone in Syria!”
The article, posted in Turkish, points readers to a photo posted by the US Army on its Instagram page earlier this month that shows an American soldier in Turkey carrying humanitarian aid, identified by social media users as tents with Chinese writing on the packaging. That writing, the article states, is “exactly the same” as the writing on the aid “that China sent to earthquake victims in Syria.”
There could only be one explanation, the Chinese state media article asserted: “blatant looting.”
The false claim soon spread to Twitter.
“The Americans are not only stealing oil from Syria,” one user wrote, “but also humanitarian aid.” That post has now been seen more than 1.4 million times, according to Twitter’s metrics, and its language copied and pasted by others.
Iran’s PressTV, without providing a source, likewise posted a photo of the US soldier carrying the Chinese aid and asserted that it had now been “reported that the tents were from a humanitarian convoy that China had sent to Syria.” Pro-Russia influencers even suggested the photo actually showed that theft in action, falsely claiming it was taken in Syria and showed the aid being loaded onto US military vehicles.
On Facebook, the false story of alleged US criminality was posted to a pro-China group with more than 127,000 followers and shared by a Moscow-based animal rights activist, who posted an image of the soldier lifted from Weibo, the Chinese social media network that appears to have first spread the story — beginning, it seems, as a nationalist mockery of the US for distributing Chinese humanitarian aid before shifting to a tale of theft and international intrigue. Other Chinese outlets have used the tale to remind readers that the US has imposed sanctions on Syria, which Beijing opposes.
In fact, as the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported around the time the Chinese supplies were delivered, US military personnel stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base were helping offload aid sent from around the world, including “medical equipment from Texas, blankets from China, [and] sleeping bags from Kazakhstan.”
The photo posted by the US military did not accidentally reveal an international conspiracy, discoverable by people scrolling Instagram on their work break, but instead depicted international cooperation — China sending vital aid to Turkey that the US, owing to its on-the-ground presence in a member of NATO, was in a position to distribute. But in an era of increasing hostility between global powers, even those rare moments of collaboration are made to seem nefarious.
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