Banned at home but thriving abroad: China’s social media campaign

by AFP/ pic by AFP

BEIJING – More than 78 million Facebook users follow the page of the state-run China Daily, where they are served a diet of largely positive — and government-approved — stories about the authoritarian country.

Not a bad fan-base, considering Facebook is banned in China.

The huge — and growing — social media presence of Beijing-run organisations pushing a decidedly pro-China line came under the spotlight this week when Facebook and Twitter announced they had uncovered a naked propaganda campaign to shape global opinion on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

The two platforms — neither of which is legally accessible in China — said they were turfing off accounts they believed were linked to a government campaign to spread disinformation.

Twitter said it had suspended nearly 1,000 users originating in China, while Facebook removed seven pages, three groups, and five accounts it said were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” focused on Hong Kong.

The financial hub has seen months of unrest as citizens protest what they say is an erosion of freedoms under Beijing’s tightening grip.

As well as peaceful rallies of up to two million people, there have been clashes with police and temporary shut-downs of the airport.

While Beijing has not intervened directly, its powerful media machine has steadily ramped up a war of words.

“From destroying government buildings to… lynching, the Hong Kong rioters are standing on the brink of terrorism,” posted China Daily — which, along with other state media, was not included in Facebook’s clean-up — on its page on Wednesday.

There have been no credible reports of lynching during the protests.

Beijing wants to “shape international perception of what is happening in Hong Kong”, said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who researches Chinese politics and media.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] propaganda tradition is to use every possible medium, so it is no surprise to see them operating on Twitter and Facebook too,” she told AFP.

Growing global presence
While western media traditionally reliant on advertising dollars has struggled to adapt to the free-for-all of the internet, well-funded Chinese state media outlets have ramped up their global footprint in recent years.

Their growing physical presence has been matched by a virtual expansion — official news agency Xinhua has one of the largest Twitter followings among state media at more than 12 million followers.

Communist mouthpiece People’s Daily has 6.7 million Twitter followers, and nationalist state-run Global Times has almost 1.5 million.

In amongst the videos of cute pandas and whacky rural inventors, the accounts push China’s official line, especially on issues where Beijing faces international criticism.

Key personalities are also given free rein on platforms that most Chinese are not allowed to read.

China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, who only joined Twitter two months ago, hinted to his 15,000 followers this week that Hong Kong’s protesters were a fifth column supported by Western governments.

“Hong Kong should never be used for infiltration into and sabotage of the mainland,” he tweeted in English.

One of the Chinese Twittersphere’s most outspoken commentators is the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, whose 77,000 followers are given his opinion on Chinese and foreign politics.

“Is the US partly responsible for the Hong Kong unrest? Yes,” he tweeted earlier this month.

“Unrest needs irrational emotion to keep on going, the US and the West have provided spiritual support to HK radical protesters.”

‘Gaslighting on a global scale’
The moves to silence Chinese-run accounts on Twitter and Facebook were greeted with protests and claims of hypocrisy in the mainland, with posters taking to the authorised — and tightly controlled — Weibo platform.

“Freedom of speech in the West means that you have freedom to oppose China, but not freedom to love China,” wrote one user.

“They try their best to fabricate, smear and discredit us,” wrote another.

“We tried our best to restore the truth to the world, but they turned a deaf ear.”

When asked about Twitter and Facebook’s accusations in Beijing on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it was “not aware of the specific situation”.

State media operate on international social media sites to “better introduce China’s situation, China’s policies, and properly tell China’s story”, said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

Lokman Tsui, an expert on internet policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that to Beijing it doesn’t matter if its attempts to provide an alternative narrative are sometimes clumsy.

“The impact of these disinformation campaigns is not necessarily that people will straight up believe the disinformation… but much more likely is that some people, especially overseas Chinese, will be unsure what to believe and start to doubt themselves,” he said.

“Chinese state media disinformation is not about offering a perspective from the other side, it is gaslighting on a massive global scale.”