Cover: Bad Actors in News Reporting

Bad Actors in News Reporting

Tracking News Manipulation by State Actors

Published Nov 15, 2021

by Christian Johnson, William Marcellino

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Research Questions

  1. Did authoritarian regimes engage in news manipulation during the pandemic?
  2. How can such manipulation be brought to light?

COVID-19 offered authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia, an opportunity to manipulate news media to serve state ends. Researchers conducted a scalable proof-of-concept study for detecting state-level news manipulation. Using a scalable infrastructure for harvesting global news media, and using machine-learning and data analysis workflows, the research team found that both Russia and China appear to have employed information manipulation during the COVID-19 pandemic in service to their respective global agendas. This report, the second in a series, describes these efforts, as well as the analytic workflows employed for detecting and documenting state-actor malign and subversive information efforts. This work is a potential blueprint for a detective capability against state-level information manipulation at the global scale, using existing, off-the-shelf technologies and methods. This report is part of RAND's Countering Truth Decay Initiative, which considers the diminishing role of facts and analysis in political and civil discourse and the policymaking process.

Key Findings

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both Russia and China engaged in news manipulation that served their political goals

  • Russian media advanced anti-U.S. conspiracy theories about the virus.
  • Chinese media advanced pro-China news that laundered their reputation in terms of COVID-19 response. Russian media also supported this laundering effort.
  • Russia and China directly threatened global health and well-being by using authoritarian power over the media to oppose public health measures.

An enduring collection capability would enable real-time detection and analysis of state-actor propaganda

  • Existing natural language processing methods can be combined to make sense of news reporting by nation, at global scale.
  • A public system for monitoring global news that detects and describes global news themes by nation is plausible. Such a system might help guard against Truth Decay efforts from malicious state actors.


  • Disinformation analyses should be performed at the state-actor level. Given the potential harm from such bad actors as Russia and China, and given the low level of investment needed to build a robust system for news manipulation detection, the U.S. government should support the establishment of such a system.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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