US media is reporting that China has quietly built a network of social media personalities and influencers who parrot the government’s perspective in posts seen by hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube users around the globe. According to a report by the Associated Press:
March 30, 2022 As China continues to assert its economic might, it is using the global social media ecosystem to expand its already formidable influence. The country has quietly built a network of social media personalities who parrot the government’s perspective in posts seen by hundreds of thousands of people, operating in virtual lockstep as they promote China’s virtues, deflect international criticism of its human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs like Russia’s war against Ukraine. Some of China’s state-affiliated reporters have posited themselves as trendy Instagram influencers or bloggers. The country has also hired firms to recruit influencers to deliver carefully crafted messages that boost its image to social media users. And it is benefitting from a cadre of Westerners who have devoted YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to echoing pro-China narratives on everything from Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims to Olympian Eileen Gu, an American who competed for China in the most recent Winter Games.
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The AP report cites research by Miburo, a firm tracking disinformation, which says there are at least 200 Chinese state-affiliated social media influencers operating in 38 different languages. These influencers have collectively amassed more than 10 million followers and subscribers.
In February, the Global Influence Operations Report reported on the research by Miburo, which defines the three broad categories of influencers the Chinese communist party (CCP) is using for propaganda efforts:
- Honeypots are young, attractive lifestyle influencers (primarily women) who are highly interactive with their audiences. Their regular content seems apolitical, but they normalize the CCP’s worldview.
- Peers are primarily Western influencers who speak and look like their target audiences. They act as CCP voiceboxes, taking their viewers on tours of various locations around China while praising developments in technology, society, and even agrarian reforms.
- Veiled Chinese state media (CSM) reporters are CSM employees who identify as reporters and journalists but are not always forthcoming about their CSM affiliations on Western social media. Some openly attack Western democratic systems, accusing them of hypocrisy and human rights abuses.
However, according to the AP, most Chinese influencer social media accounts are inconsistently labeled as state-affiliated on social media platforms. While some accounts are labeled on Facebook or Instagram, they are not flagged on YouTube or TikTok.
For more than a decade, China has been ramping up its overseas messaging effort through state-sponsored media outlets and influencer marketing. The GIOR has extensively covered Chinese covert efforts to spread propaganda, including:
- How China used private marketing agencies to hire English-speaking YouTube influencers to promote pre-made videos insinuating that Covid-19 originated in North America.
- How China hired western social media influencers to spread positive stories about China throughout the Winter Olympics and Paralympics
- How China taps private businesses to generate content on-demand, draw followers, track critics, and provide other services for information campaigns on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook
- How China cultivates a network of Western pro-China YouTube influencers
The GIOR was also among the first publications to uncover a network of inauthentic social media accounts flooding YouTube with hundreds of Chinese propaganda videos whitewashing China’s human rights violations against the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang and pushing the hashtag #StopXinjiangRumors.