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Veiled State Media Reporters, Honeypots, and Peers: China’s Global Influencer Operations

February 15th, 2022 16:02

Miburo, a US-based con­sult­ing com­pa­ny, is report­ing that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has adopt­ed a cal­cu­lat­ed social media influ­encer strat­e­gy that includes three broad cat­e­gories of influ­encers: “Veiled” Chi­nese state media per­son­nel, “hon­ey­pots” and so-called peers. This strat­e­gy aims to cir­cum­vent attempts by West­ern social media to lim­it the reach of offi­cial state-linked media and to deliv­er Chi­nese pro­pa­gan­da via more trust­ed, more appeal­ing mes­sen­gers. Accord­ing to a Miburo report:

Jan­u­ary 31, 2022 The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CCP), which has long strug­gled to find mes­sen­gers that appeal to for­eign audi­ences, has recent­ly tapped into influ­encers’ remark­able pow­er of per­sua­sion in order to sell us the CCP itself and its con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies. This influ­encer-focused strat­e­gy is delib­er­ate and cal­cu­lat­ed, as evi­denced by Chi­nese state media (CSM) leadership’s own words. In 2016, Zhu Ling, edi­tor-in-chief of state-owned Chi­na Dai­ly empha­sized the impor­tance of “bor­row­ing mouths” to speak favor­ably about Chi­na. […] The pur­pose of this influ­encer-focused strat­e­gy is twofold: to cir­cum­vent attempts by West­ern social media to iden­ti­fy and lim­it the reach of CSM (includ­ing Face­book and Twit­ter “Chi­nese state-con­trolled media” labels), and to deliv­er CCP-aligned mes­sag­ing via more trust­ed, more appeal­ing mes­sen­gers. The use of CSM-based “influ­encer stu­dios” and “bor­rowed” for­eign influ­encers to cre­ate and dis­sem­i­nate PUGC works well for this pur­pose because it allows the CCP to con­trol con­tent cre­ators’ mes­sages and cap­ture audi­ence atten­tion with eye-catch­ing sto­ries, all while grant­i­ng the CCP plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty.  To exe­cute this strat­e­gy, Chi­na has assem­bled a col­lec­tion of pro-CCP con­tent cre­ators, includ­ing its own state media employ­ees moon­light­ing as lifestyle influ­encers, for­eign­ers paid by the CCP to toe the par­ty line, and even mem­bers of Chi­nese eth­nic minor­i­ty groups used in domes­tic infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions. In total, we have found more than 200 such influ­encers. Part­ly owing to their sheer num­bers, we have clas­si­fied them accord­ing to their back­grounds, tar­get audi­ences, and the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of their recruit­ment and man­age­ment. China’s pro­pa­gan­da influ­encers fall into three broad cat­e­gories: “hon­ey­pots,” “peers,” and “veiled CSM reporters.” This need for a tax­on­o­my illus­trates both the breadth and the ambi­tion of China’s new peer-to-peer pro­pa­gan­da strategy.

Read the full report here.

The Miburo report defines the three broad cat­e­gories of influ­encers the Chi­nese com­mu­nist par­ty (CCP) is using for its pro­pa­gan­da efforts as:

  • 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.

A sec­ond Miburo report ana­lyzes how the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of these influ­encers allow their CCP-aligned mes­sag­ing to reach audi­ences, get­ting to them first and main­ly from a trust­ed source and with­out rebut­tal. This ends up being a par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive method of dis­sem­i­nat­ing propaganda.