Several recently released reports have shed new light on China’s international efforts to bolster its image and manipulate public opinion, through both traditional and social media. Two reports were released this week, one by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the other by Oxford’s Internet Institute in cooperation with the Associated Press. The IFJ’s report provided new details on China’s leveraging of traditional media outlets abroad to promote its image, while the Oxford report looked at China’s use of Twitter as a new public stage for its aggressive “wolf-warrior” diplomacy. Taken together, they provide an intricate picture of China’s contemporary public opinion influence efforts, revealing a newfound level of sophistication and adeptness at leveraging Western platforms to promote China’s view of the world.
For the Associated Press, Erika Kinetz reported an in-depth story on AP and the Oxford Internet Institute’s findings:
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
[…] More than half the retweets Liu [Xiaoming, China’s most recent ambassador to the U.K.] got from June through January came from accounts that Twitter has suspended for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than one in ten of the retweets 189 Chinese diplomats got in that time frame came from accounts that Twitter had suspended by Mar. 1.
But Twitter’s suspensions did not stop the pro-China amplification machine. An additional cluster of fake accounts, many of them impersonating U.K. citizens, continued to push Chinese government content, racking up over 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter kicked them off late last month and early this month, in response to the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation.
This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.
[…] Twitter, and others, have identified inauthentic pro-China networks before. But the AP and Oxford Internet Institute investigation shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. [Source]
Oxford’s researchers also found that an initiative by social media platforms to label state-affiliated social media accounts, including Chinese state media, were effective in curbing engagement and re-sharing of those accounts’ tweets. But they noted significant shortcomings in the platform’s labelling systems, which missed a large number of accounts:
🗣 despite their high levels of activity, Chinese diplomat accounts are rarely given a “government” label by social media accounts. On Twitter only 14% of Chinese diplomat accounts have a “government” label. pic.twitter.com/qZk7Bmeqiv
— Hannah Bailey (@Hannah_LSBailey) May 11, 2021
🗣 One in ten of the retweets of Chinese diplomats were from accounts that were later suspended by @TwitterSafety . Some accounts exclusively amplify one diplomat, forming a “cone” shape around that diplomat. Others are grouped in the middle, amplifying several Chinese diplomats pic.twitter.com/IbhfkbIPG1
— Hannah Bailey (@Hannah_LSBailey) May 11, 2021
Social media platforms are not the only stage on which China’s political influencers have stepped up their game. On Thursday, the International Federation of Journalists published a report based on its global survey of affiliate journalists’ unions, documenting how China has sought to burnish its reputation abroad over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Julia Bergin, one of the co-authors of the report, wrote about their findings for Nieman Lab, the journalism institute at Harvard University:
Over half of the 50 nations surveyed at the end of 2020 reported coverage of China had become more positive in their national media since the onset of the pandemic, while less than a quarter reported it had become increasingly negative.
The change was most favorable in Europe, which scored 6.3 on a scale of one to ten, where one is the most negative and ten is the most positive. China’s image plummeted in North America, coming in at 3.5.
[…] China has long attempted to seed positive narratives of itself in foreign media, while blocking unfavorable coverage and redirecting the world’s attention onto Western failures.
To do so, Beijing taps into foreign media ecosystems with tailored offers of access and resources. It exports its propaganda to foreign media organizations through content-sharing agreements and memoranda of understanding with state-sponsored media outlets like Xinhua and China Daily.
For example, Italy’s state-run news agency ANSA now publishes 50 Xinhua stories a day on its news wire, with Xinhua taking editorial responsibility for the content. [Source]
Deutsche Welle’s William Yang reported additional details about the report:
Additionally, the survey also shows that China is taking a more interventionist approach to influence coverage about China in different countries’ national media. “Almost one in five countries reported that the Chinese embassy or ambassador in their country frequently comments on local media coverage of China,” wrote the report’s authors.
[…] Nonetheless, the survey shows that China is activating the existing media infrastructure that it has put in place globally, which includes training programs and sponsored trips for global journalists, content sharing agreements feeding state-sponsored messages into the global news ecosystems, memoranda of understanding with global journalism unions, and increasing ownership of publishing platforms.
[…] The report also pointed out that China’s large-scale medical diplomacy campaign has allowed Beijing to score a lot of propaganda wins in many developing countries, burnishing Beijing’s image as a reliable partner.
“In some countries, China was also seen as the purveyor of the most accurate information about the new coronavirus, showing its growing influence over global narratives,” wrote the report’s authors. “This research shows that countries that are recipients of China’s Covid vaccine clearly have more positive coverage of China, but it cannot draw conclusions as to the factors behind that.” [Source]
While Oxford’s report looked at how Chinese propagandists expanded their influence on a new platform, the IFJ report provided details about China’s influence through traditional media networks, via syndication, advertising, and other marketing techniques. The IFJ’s findings seem to demonstrate an evolution in Chinese state media’s capabilities, showing a greater adeptness than before.
“When many news outlets are not able to have anyone stationed in China, that can quickly become a choke point as the only source of information from China that’s free is through Xinhua or other state-run content-sharing agreement.”
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) May 13, 2021
Notably, both reports mention China’s expanding initiatives in non-Anglophone languages. Oxford’s report notes that while Facebook succeeded in labelling two-thirds of a sample of 95 Chinese state media accounts in English, less than a quarter of accounts in other languages received such a label. The IFJ’s report observes that Beijing appears to be expanding its news offerings on both domestic and international government in non-Anglophone languages.
Upon being asked to comment on the IFJ’s report, China’s Foreign Ministry defended the government’s media strategy. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying argued that what China is doing is no different from a long-running strategy employed by the United States. China Media Project staff reported on her comments:
Hua’s one-two-three rebuttal of the IFJ report yesterday (she actually makes five points neatly in succession) suggests she was clearly prepared for the question, a softball lobbed by a reporter from Hong Kong’s China Review News Agency (CNRTT).
[…] In her rebuttal yesterday, Hua continued with Zhao’s line of reasoning, suggesting that China has merely responded to tactics employed by the United States. She noted in particular the “Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” which in Subtitle D, “Countering Chinese Communist Party Influence,” allocates 300 million dollars for a Chinese Influence Fund to “counter the malign influence” of the CCP globally.
Accusing the US of “naked hegemony in public opinion or discourse” and arguing that media in the West, beholden to their capitalist masters, serve a conspiracy to disparage China, Hua suggests that Party-state media “uphold the principle of objectivity and truthfulness in news reporting, and do not fabricate or disseminate false information against other countries.” [Source]
But a key distinction between the U.S.’ sponsoring of media outlets and China’s is that Beijing has often used its foreign media influence to propagate actual falsehoods and, increasingly, undermine dissenting voices. The Economist this week reported on how China’s global media influence has allowed it to challenge and attack Uyghurs and researchers who have spoken out about the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang:
The campaigns are getting personal. In April Xinhua, the official news agency, called Mr [Adrian] Zenz a “puppet of anti-China forces”. An entity called the Xinjiang Development Research Centre issued a report titled “Slanderer Adrian Zenz’s Xinjiang-related Fallacies Versus the Truth”. Global Times, a party tabloid, denounced Vicky Xu, an Australian researcher who has written about forced labour. It accused her of stoking sentiment that puts Chinese people in Australia “in peril”, and quoted a Chinese student who said she was “bewitched by the anti-China forces in the West”.
In the past, when the party was accused of specific abuses, its propagandists would issue general denials. They would also try to recast repressive policies as examples of the party’s wisdom and munificence, producing what a vice-president of Xinhua once called “fairy tales”. And they have long tried to change the subject by playing up human-rights abuses in America. State media still produce fairy tales about happy Uyghurs doing traditional dances. But now, at almost any critical mention of Xinjiang, China pushes back hard.
[…] The authorities in Beijing recognise that the most persuasive voices are not their own. They prefer to “borrow a mouth to speak”—promoting online the voices of useful foreigners, some of whom have made YouTube videos about their travels in Xinjiang, challenging reports of Uyghur suffering. A particular favourite is the Grayzone, an outlet that has sought to discredit the Western narrative on Xinjiang as a product of American imperialism. [Source]