New Reports Detail Chinese Influence Operations in Foreign Media

A series of recent reports shows the variety of tactics employed to extend Chinese influence into foreign countries, particularly their information ecosystems. The reports outline the strengths and weaknesses of these influence operations and the resilience of their targets, and in many cases testify to the CCP’s growing desire and ability to control global narratives about China.

In a report released on Tuesday, Meta revealed that it had taken down two online networks originating from China and Russia that violated the platform’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. (The removals follow similar moves against pro-U.S. operations reported in August.) While Meta did not have enough evidence to conclude precisely who in China was behind the operation, the methods used resemble the Chinese government’s past efforts to use Western social media platforms to promote the CCP’s agenda, and American officials expressed concern about intelligence reports of election interference by foreign governments. Meta’s Ben Nimmo, Global Threat Intelligence Lead, and David Agranovich, Director of Threat Disruption, summarized the influence operation from China:

We took down a small network that originated in China and targeted the United States, the Czech Republic and to a lesser extent, Chinese- and French-speaking audiences around the world. It included four largely separate and short-lived efforts, each focused on a particular audience at different times between the Fall of 2021 and mid-September 2022. In the United States, it targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum; in Czechia, this activity was primarily anti-government, criticizing the state’s support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy, using the criticism to caution against antagonizing China. Each cluster of accounts — around half a dozen each — posted content at low volumes during working hours in China rather than when their target audiences would typically be awake. Few people engaged with it and some of those who did called it out as fake. Our automated systems took down a number of accounts and Facebook Pages for various Community Standards violations, including impersonation and inauthenticity. [Source]

The Chinese influence operation employed a combination of over 90 accounts, pages, and groups across Facebook and Instagram that attracted hundreds of users. While its scope was relatively small compared to the Russian influence operation, Meta said this was the first targeted online campaign originating from China that attempted to interfere in U.S. politics. In September of last year, researchers uncovered a suspected Chinese state-affiliated online influence campaign across Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube that urged real-world protests in the U.S., although it was not directly related to politics. As Steven Lee Myers from The New York Times reported, the Chinese operation represented a new direction and cross-fertilization with Russian disinformation:

Ben Nimmo, Meta’s lead official for global threat intelligence, said the operation reflected “a new direction for Chinese influence operations.”

“It is talking to Americans, pretending to be Americans rather than talking about America to the rest of the world,” he added later. “So the operation is small in itself, but it is a change.”

[…] Meta’s report noted overlap between the Russian and Chinese campaigns on “a number of occasions,” although the company said they were unconnected. The overlap reflects the growing cross-fertilization of official statements and state media reports in the two countries, especially regarding the United States.

The accounts associated with the Chinese campaign posted material from Russia’s state media, including those involving unfounded allegations that the United States had secretly developed biological weapons in Ukraine. [Source]

While the Chinese influence operation taken down by Meta may have been small in scope and largely a flop, there have been signs elsewhere that the CCP has been honing its ability to deliver targeted propaganda for various groups abroad. A new report by Recorded Future, titled “1 Key for 1 Lock: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Targeted Propaganda,” detailed the CCP’s strategy of “precise communication,” which adapts advertising tactics to design content and dissemination methods that appeal to the preferences of a particular audience. The strategy is made possible through area studies research, in-country surveys, online behavioral data, and the aid of international firms, and it coheres with the CCP’s related patterns of increasing media localization, use of online influencers, global data collection, and social media differentiation. Here are some of the key judgments of the report, authored by Devin Thorne: 

Party-state media is almost certainly among the leading implementers of precise communication, but a wide range of actors are also very likely to be directly or indirectly involved; some Chinese academics argue that precise communication should entail selecting the right communicator for maximum effect given the target and content.

The precise communication concept is almost certainly intended to influence all of the CCP’s propaganda output, from news distribution through third parties, to TV show production, to the online and social media activities of party-state media and Chinese diplomats. 

The content disseminated by party-state media and other elements of the external propaganda apparatus is likely to become increasingly diverse, first according to country differences and then based on social strata and other community-level characteristics.

New forms of media that adopt different approaches are likely to continue proliferating, with recent examples including online lifestyle influencers and newsletters. [Source]

This week, the International Republican Institute also released a new report on a similar theme. “Coercion, Capture, and Censorship: Case Studies on the CCP’s Quest for Global Influence” analyzes a range of economic, political, and informational influence tactics by the Chinese government, and how they impact democracy and governance in 12 different countries. While the report finds that these tactics continue to threaten institutions of democratic governance, it highlights the strengths that allow democracies to be resilient in the face of autocratic influence. One of the reports notable themes is the growing efforts by the Chinese government to shape the global debate on China’s rise:

China continues in its comprehensive, well-resourced efforts to shape global opinion on its rise. In nearly every country examined in this compendium, authors identified robust efforts by the PRC partystate to guide public opinion on China. In Brazil, for example, Chinese ambassador Yang Wanming and other PRC diplomats used their platforms, including a series of op-eds published by one of Brazil’s most widely read newspapers, to promote outright disinformation. This push included a June 2020 statement that the U.S. created COVID-19. This disinformation was only the tip of an informational iceberg, as Ambassador Yang and his fellow diplomats leveraged a combination of content-sharing agreements and advertising, economic pressure, and co-optation of political and economic elites to shape Brazil’s information environment in a markedly pro-PRC direction, taking an increasingly confrontational tone in response to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s erratic behavior toward China. [Source]

Earlier this month, Freedom House released a report on China’s global media influence that examined the traditional, covert, and coercive tactics used by the CCP to influence foreign media outlets in 30 countries. Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, recently published a report on this sort of influence through an in-depth case study of Kyrgyzstan. Titled “Managing Sentiments in the Western Periphery: Chinese Information Operations in the Kyrgyz Republic,” the report investigates the tactics, narratives, and effectiveness of the PRC’s media engagement, and how journalist tours, content-sharing agreements, and Chinese government entities facilitate CCP propaganda in Kyrgyzstan’s social and traditional media. Here are some of the report’s main findings

There are three main characteristics of strategies employed by the PRC: 1) inserting content within Kyrgyz media, 2) local presence of PRC media, and 3) engagement on social media. There is a cross-cutting and mutually supportive relationship between all these strategies. For example, local presence of PRC media strengthens production capacity of locally tailored PRCfriendly materials, especially when combined with direct access to local PRC entities and local elites through diplomatic channels.

There are a total of 22 information platforms with high positive PRC engagement in the Kyrgyz Republic. Their PRC-friendly content is sustained and incorporated directly via sponsored trips and specific training programs in the PRC, and/or agreed and paid-for inserts from PRC media. Despite the absence of a strict condition to publish materials from trips to the PRC, it can be observed that most Kyrgyz journalists who participated in these visiting trips and specific trainings published on materials learned from the PRC instructors during or after their trips.

[…] At least 9 Kyrgyz media entities have signed cooperation agreements with PRC entities, with some dating back to the early 2000s. The scope of these agreements varies, from allowing Kyrgyz media organisations to freely reprinting published content as they see fit, committing to regularly publishing PRC-made domestic and world news, jointly producing specific content, including specific paid-for content in their reporting, and more. [Source]


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