China lunar mission fuels US misinformation

A barrage of space misinformation risks stoking anti-US perceptions in China
A barrage of space misinformation risks stoking anti-US perceptions in China.

A historic lunar mission has demonstrated China’s growing scientific prowess, but the feat has set off a torrent of misinformation targeting the United States that researchers say reflects their bitter competition in space.

China is celebrating the return of the Chang’e 6 probe to Earth on Tuesday bearing rock-and- from the little-known far side of the moon, following a 53-day that reignited old about NASA’s Apollo moon landings.

AFP’s fact-checkers have debunked a litany of Chinese-language posts suggesting NASA’s historic mission in 1969 –- that first landed humans on the moon—was staged as well as posts misrepresenting decades-old photos from subsequent landings.

The falsehoods, researchers say, risk stoking anti-US perceptions in China amid already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing, as the superpowers engage in an intensifying space race.

“There is undeniably a great power rivalry in space between the US and China, and any kind of misinformation about the activities by either country is concerning,” Saadia M. Pekkanen, from the University of Washington, told AFP.

“It is yet another way that the potential for space diplomacy can be negated in the geopolitical competition between the two countries.”

When China’s National Space Agency released a photo of a stone-made Chinese flag erected on the moon’s far side by Chang’e-6 in early June, users on social media platform X compared it with an image of NASA astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt standing next to a US flag on the lunar surface in 1972.

Posting to tens of thousands of followers, they falsely suggested the Apollo 16 mission must have been staged because Schmitt’s cloth flag was pictured being “blown” by the wind—despite NASA’s explanation that it used a horizontal bar to hold it upright.


Posts comparing the images on China’s Weibo platform attracted a flood of comments, with one user with more than 13 million followers writing that the photos proved that “Americans did not land on the moon”.

Other users shared a photo of the German band Rammstein dressed as astronauts with their helmets off, with one sarcastic caption on Weibo reading: “Now you believe that the US moon landing was real.”

Decades-old photos from NASA’s Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s have also been recycled by social media users claiming they were actually from China’s groundbreaking lunar mission.

Beijing has poured huge resources into its over the past decade in a bid to close the gap with the United States and Russia.

China aims to send a crewed mission to the moon by 2030 and plans to build a base on the lunar surface, while the United States is also planning to put astronauts back on the moon by 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission.

China's historic moon landing signifies its growing space prowess
China’s historic moon landing signifies its growing space prowess.

It was not clear whether the misinformation was fueled by Chinese state-backed actors, but the rapid spread on tightly controlled social networks has raised questions about their possible support or involvement.

“Beijing sometimes lets anti-American sentiments and false information run rampant on the Chinese internet, to allow for an escape valve for domestic tensions, and to modulate Chinese citizens’ views,” Isaac Stone Fish, chief executive of China-focused data company Strategy Risks, told AFP.

“Allowing conspiracy theories on the US moon landing to fester may reflect insecurity on Beijing’s part on the space race between China and the United States.”

‘Spread a lie’

Researchers say the misinformation campaign suggests a frequent tactic of recycling existing conspiracy theories to sow online distrust.

“There is a large online community that is happy to talk about the moon landing conspiracy,” Darren Linvill, from Clemson University, told AFP.

“If this audience can be harnessed to spread a lie that puts China in a more positive light, that is all the better for China.”

Chinese state media coverage strongly praising the Chang’e-6 probe’s success has simultaneously been critical of the United States.

Washington has warned that Beijing’s space program is being used to mask military objectives and an effort to establish dominance in space.

The nationalist Global Times newspaper reported that the Chang’e-6 mission demonstrated China’s “open and inclusive attitude toward international cooperation” in contrast to the United States, which it said was “busy chanting the ‘China threat’ in a so-called space race”.

Against this backdrop, AFP debunked Chinese-language posts on Facebook, Weibo, TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin quoting the White House press secretary as saying that the US and China landed on “different moons” after being asked why the Chang’e-6 found “no traces” of NASA’s mission.

The exchange was entirely fabricated.

“Chinese people can be justifiably proud of their lunar module’s historic trip to collect samples,” Stone Fish said.

“They don’t need to fall victim to the old conspiracy theory that the US has staged landings.”

© 2024 AFP

‘Power rivalry in space’: China lunar mission fuels US misinformation (2024, June 27)
retrieved 27 June 2024

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