The CCP’s Willing Influencers Amplify State Propaganda Online

This week, a slew of new reports on China’s online propaganda campaigns was released. As researchers documented, the CCP is increasingly using foreign influencers to disseminate pro-China narratives on Western social media—particularly regarding the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang—in order to increase engagement and defend against foreign critics. Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong, Aaron Krolik, Aliza Aufrichtig and Nailah Morgan from The New York Times described the elaborate government apparatus behind foreign influencers in China, and their large online reach:

State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers’ travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves. They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

With official media outlets’ backing, the creators can visit and film in parts of China where the authorities have obstructed foreign journalists’ reporting.

[…] But even if the creators do not see themselves as propaganda tools, Beijing is using them that way. Chinese diplomats and representatives have shown their videos at news conferences and promoted their creations on social media. Together, six of the most popular of these influencers have garnered more than 130 million views on YouTube and more than 1.1 million subscribers.

[…] Joshua Lam and Libby Lange, graduate student researchers at Yale University, analyzed a sample of nearly 290,000 tweets that mentioned Xinjiang in the first half of 2021. They found that six of the 10 most commonly shared YouTube videos in the tweets were from the pro-China influencers. [Source]

In a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) titled “Borrowing Mouths to Speak on Xinjiang,” Fergus Ryan, Ariel Bogle, Nathan Ruser, Albert Zhang, and Daria Impiombato tracked the spread of foreign influencers’ Xinjiang-related content online and created an interactive network diagram of the influencer ecosystem. Here are some of the report’s key findings:

Our data collection has found that, between January 2020 and August 2021, 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on US-based social media platforms have published at least 546 Facebook posts, Twitter posts and shared articles from CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua or China Daily websites that have amplified Xinjiang-related social media content from 13 influencer accounts. More than 50% of that activity occurred on Facebook.

[…] ASPI analysed hundreds of YouTube videos depicting trips to Xinjiang made by foreign influencers. Just as many tours of Xinjiang are largely directed by state-controlled institutions and government bodies, our research suggests that some of the locations shown in the foreign influencers’ videos are chosen by state entities. When the locations weren’t chosen by the Chinese state, our analysis found that detention centres were sometimes accidentally filmed. Our analysis of one video, filmed by a ‘vlogger’ from Singapore, found that he unintentionally filmed seven separate detention facilities in a 15-minute YouTube video showing his airliner’s descent into Ürümqi International Airport.

Our research has found that labelling schemes adopted by some video-sharing and social media platforms to identify state-affiliated accounts are inconsistently applied to media outlets and journalists working for those outlets. In addition, few platforms appear to have clear policies on content from online influencers or vloggers whose content may be facilitated by state-affiliated media, through sponsored trips, for example. [Source]

The Chinese government’s use of foreign influencers is another propaganda and disinformation tool for advancing its international “discourse power”—its ability to shape global narratives. The government’s coordination with foreign influencers, who post their content on Western social media platforms that are banned in China, demonstrates official eagerness to project their content to an international audience. Indeed, China Media Group’s International Communications Planning Bureau, established in 2019, was designed to “explore new methods of external communication, including [an] Influencer Studio,” a state-supported training program for influencers to attract foreign audiences online.

The money trail demonstrates the link between the Chinese government, influencers, and a desire to control the narrative about controversial issues. Anna Massoglia, writing for Open Secrets, explores a recent example of this in which the Chinese government hired a U.S.-based consulting firm to recruit social media influencers for the upcoming Beijing Olympics:

The influence operation is being coordinated by Vippi Media, a consulting firm based in New Jersey, as part of a $300,000 contract that spans through March 2022. China’s Consulate General in New York paid $210,000 in advance on Nov. 23.

As part of the online influence campaign to promote the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and the 2022 Paralympics, the Chinese government is paying the firm to recruit influencers who are “to be activated to drive viewership, mass awareness and premium content” for China.

[…] The new $300,000 contract is far less than China spends on China Daily or CCTV, but it demonstrates how online influencers can have a wide reach without the high costs of physical newspaper production or television programming.  

While China Daily’s entire international print readership is estimated to be around 900,000, a single “celebrity” influencer targeted as part of the Chinese government’s new campaign would have more than 2 million Instagram followers or 2.5 million TikTok followers. [Source

In July, Kerry Allen and Sophie Williams at the BBC reported on similar attempts by Chinese state media to pay for foreign influencers to co-produce content about Xinjiang:

On its website, CGTN says it currently has more than 700 “global stringers” worldwide, to whom it offers “international visibility” and “bonuses”.

It aims to expand its influencer pool further by offering cash rewards of up to $10,000 (about £7,190) to reporters, podcasters, presenters and influencers who join its newly-launched “media challengers” campaign. Jason Lightfoot, and Lee and Oli Barrett have appeared in promotional material for this campaign. 

[…] [M]ultiple sources at CGTN who spoke to the BBC on the condition of anonymity said there is now a focus within the organisation to make use of “internet celebrities and influencers” for what has been described as a “fightback” against foreign media reporting.

This has included setting up a new “internet celebrities” department whose team “contact foreigners to either use their videos or to co-operate to make videos together”, the BBC was told. More recently, some departments have been instructed to “find foreigners to send to Xinjiang to represent us”. [Source]

Compared to other forms of online influence such as Twitter bots, foreign influencers are particularly valuable to the CCP’s propaganda campaigns. Studies have shown that many CCP-linked, coordinated Twitter networks of fake accounts that amplify state media content receive relatively very little engagement. A recent analysis by Foreign Policy posited three reasons for this: platform takedowns may limit their growth, CCP organizational behavior may incentivize quantity of posts over engagement, and CCP messaging may simply lack the persuasiveness to sway public opinion via Twitter. By contrast, foreign influencers have dynamic accounts that avoid platform takedowns, and their apparent unofficial status lends credibility to pro-CCP talking points. 

Similarly, foreign influencers play a crucial role in channeling CCP content to their respective networks—networks that would otherwise be inaccessible to CCP social media accounts, which tend to be highly centralized. “Corridors of Power,” a recent AidData report on Beijing’s influence through economic, social and network ties, described how Twitter engagement between China, South Asia and Central Asia relied almost exclusively on a small group of gatekeeping individuals to spread pro-China content

For most SCA countries, a relatively small number of brokers—handles that bridge two communities that would otherwise be unconnected (Chaudhary and Warner, 2016)—occupy critical positions in facilitating the flow of information and communication between SCA and PRC-affiliated Twitter handles (Borgatti et al., 2018; Freeman, 1978).

[…] In this chapter, we examined how centrally positioned the PRC is within the social media networks of SCA elites to promote uptake of its desired narratives. For all the discussion of the PRC’s social media diplomacy in South and Central Asia, its Twitter footprint is surprisingly limited. Few SCA elites directly follow, or are followed by, the 115 PRC-affiliated accounts in our sample network. Instead, the PRC’s ability to influence narratives and connect with its desired target audiences on Twitter is contingent on a relatively small number of brokers—most often individual politicians and journalists in South Asia and government agencies tasked with foreign affairs and trade in Central Asia. The PRC relies heavily on centralized state-run media to push out positive stories about China to SCA countries, as well as diplomatic accounts to amplify these stories and filter information about SCA back to China. [Source]

Alex Yu contributed to this post.

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