External Propaganda Roundup: Unpacking Influence Via United Front Tactics, P.R. Firms, Twitter

Over the past few weeks, several think tanks have published reports evaluating the expansion and success of China’s external propaganda. Together, they show the wide range of tools, targets, mediums, and regions involved in spreading narratives that support the Chinese government and the CCP. 

This week, the International Republican Institute published “Countering China’s Information Manipulation in the Indo-Pacific and Kazakhstan: A Framework for Understanding and Action,” authored by Mareike Ohlberg, Lilly Min-Chen Lee, Alvin Camba, Benjamin Yew Hoong Loh, Niva Yau, et al. The report presents an analytical framework, which it calls a “united front approach,” to characterize the Chinese’s government’s attempts to manipulate the global information environment. It is based on the CCP’s United Front system that “explicitly legitimizes unrestrained state coercion of societal elites outside China’s borders as a means to dominate narrative spaces.” The report also highlights the range of actors and mechanisms involved in China’s narrative-shaping efforts through case studies in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Kazakhstan. Here are some of the key takeaways on how the CCP primarily targets local elites to promote narratives favorable to China and the CCP:

The CCP engages with political elites through friendship associations, sister-city ties, and parliament-to-parliament groups, creating a wide network of support and influencing public discourse. 

Business communities and economic elites are targeted by the CCP as influential actors in public life, with extensive commercial cooperation allowing the CCP to tie a country’s economic development and leadership’s personal financial concerns to PRC interests. 

The CCP also directly targets the media and aims to establish itself as the authority on information about the PRC, limiting independent sources and creating pro-PRC narrative echo chambers. This accompanies various tactics used to crowd out other sources of information, such as targeting journalists and media organizations through revenue dependence, guided media tours, and co-option. 

The CCP targets elite level educational institutions to exert influence over foreign scholars, aiming to establish itself as the authoritative voice on PRC affairs. CCP affiliated organizations provide scholarships, trips, and academic funding to cut out alternate sources of Chinese academic expertise. [Source]

Building off of Freedom House’s Beijing’s Global Media Influence report, Sarah Cook wrote an article in The Diplomat analyzing how public relations (PR) firms play a critical role in the Chinese government’s external propaganda. Some of these PR firms have been involved in covert, coercive, or potentially corrupt activities on behalf of Chinese entities, which have often used intermediaries to conceal any connection to the Chinese government. In this excerpt, Cook describes how PR firms in the U.S. have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chinese government entities, some linked to the United Front:

A case study on Beijing’s media influence efforts in the United States since 2019, published by Freedom House last month, highlights a contract between the Chinese embassy and Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) in which the embassy paid the firm $144,000 in the first half of 2020 to help diplomats with “crafting, editing, and placing op-eds,” as well as maintaining the embassy’s social media accounts. During those six months, then-Ambassador Cui Tiankai had articles published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg, and possibly other outlets. Since the contract ended, Cui’s successors have been much less prolific.

But filings dating back to 2011 show that BLJ also contracted with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a proxy entity that is widely viewed as part of the CCP’s United Front work. The PR firm was paid $20,000 a month to arrange trips to China for journalism students, to enlist former U.S. government officials in writing “positive opinion articles on China” for national media outlets, to analyze “four leading United States high-school textbooks” for their portrayal of Tibet and China, and to develop recommendations for “countering the tide of public discourse” on Tibet. In the first half of 2020,  the CUSEF paid BLJ more than $300,000 for services including assistance with funded trips to China for journalists from Vox, Slate, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Huffington Post.

CUSEF has sometimes worked with another PR company, Wilson Global Communications. Freedom House uncovered a CUSEF contract under which Wilson earned more than $300,000 in 2019-20 for “building, enhancing, and retaining positive relationships with key opinion leaders in African American communities, students from underserved communities, and African American media outlets.” Subsequent filings provide details on various delegations of Black university students and presidents of historically Black colleges and universities who were sponsored by CUSEF to visit China. [Source]

China’s external propaganda has been facilitated and amplified by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, a platform that remains crucial for shaping global discourse. Almost immediately after his takeover, Chinese and other state-run media accounts experienced a sharp uptick in followers, after months of decline. Veronika Blablová from CHOICE (China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe) described the various ways that Musk’s Twitter policies are supporting Chinese propaganda

Another issue concerns the labeling of state-sponsored content. Similarly to other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter previously labeled the accounts of state-affiliated media, journalists and government-affiliated officials not using their profiles solely for personal purposes. The labelling policy changed several times in spring 2023, resulting in the complete removal of these labels, which previously contributed to Twitter users being more reluctant to engage with the state-affiliated content, limiting its reach. 

Moreover, while the verified accounts were originally assessed based on their behavior, limiting the reach of inauthentic accounts and hinting at relevancy of each account, the current ‘Twitter blue’ mark is dependent on a monthly subscription. Prioritizing income for the financially struggling company over authenticity of accounts creates an opportunity to flood the network with information campaigns. Several Chinese media and officials have already paid for Twitter blue, such as Global Times, People’s Daily, and Xinhua, and Chinese Ambassadors to the EU and the South Africa and therefore enjoy a priority display in other user’s timelines.

To draw a full picture, Twitter has also newly introduced grey checkmarks to label multilateral and governmental institutions and affiliated officials. However, at this moment, only a handful of Chinese diplomats are labeled, and such an approach completely disregards state-affiliated media and journalists, which in China’s case, belong among the most active accounts spreading government sanctioned messaging. For instance, CGTN is currently operating about twenty eight Twitter accounts with different regional and language focus. [Source]

Taiwan-based DoubleThink Lab recently published a report titled “Unpacking the Power of Propaganda: The Factors in Shaping Overseas Chinese Communities’ Attitudes Towards Pro-CCP Narratives.” Using a set of surveys conducted in New Zealand and Malaysia, the authors—Roy Ngerng, Eric Hsu, Cecile Liu, and Ai-Men Lau—aimed to assess the overseas audiences of Chinese propaganda and the factors that might make them more susceptible to influence. Here are some of the key findings regarding participants’ attitudes toward society and identity: 

1. In general, not having a sense of belonging and a weaker identification with the country of residence, is associated with higher levels of agreement with propaganda.

2. Among Chinese respondents in New Zealand and Malaysia, those who were more concerned about government and poor leadership, and on race relations and racism, tended to show higher levels of agreement with pro-CCP propaganda.

3. Among Chinese respondents in New Zealand, those who were more concerned about crime, foreign policy, ethics and moral decline and immigration were also more likely to agree with propaganda, though it should be noted that other than the issue of crime, the sample sizes of those concerned about the other issues are low. [Source]


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