How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

To her 1.4 million followers throughout TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, Vica Li says she is a “life blogger” and “food lover” who desires to show her followers about China to allow them to journey the nation with ease.

“Through my lens, I will take you around China, take you into Vica’s life!” she says in a video posted in January to her YouTube and Facebook accounts, the place she additionally teaches Chinese language lessons over Zoom.

However that lens could also be managed by CGTN, the Chinese language-state run TV community the place she has frequently appeared in broadcasts and is listed as a digital reporter on the corporate’s web site. And whereas Vica Li tells her followers that she “created all of these channels on her own,” her Facebook account reveals that at the least 9 individuals handle her web page.

That portfolio of accounts is only one tentacle of China’s quickly rising affect on US-owned social media platforms, an Related Press examination has discovered.

As China continues to claim its financial may, it’s utilizing the worldwide social media ecosystem to develop its already formidable affect. The nation has quietly constructed a community of social media personalities who parrot the federal government’s perspective in posts seen by tons of of hundreds of individuals, working in digital lockstep as they promote China’s virtues, deflect worldwide criticism of its human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s speaking factors on world affairs like Russia’s warfare towards Ukraine.

A few of China’s state-affiliated reporters have posited themselves as stylish Instagram influencers or bloggers. The nation has additionally employed corporations to recruit influencers to ship rigorously crafted messages that increase its picture to social media customers.

And it’s benefitting from a cadre of Westerners who’ve devoted YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to echoing pro-China narratives on every thing from Beijing’s therapy of Uyghur Muslims to Olympian Eileen Gu, an American who competed for China in the latest Winter Video games.

The influencer community permits Beijing to simply proffer propaganda to unsuspecting Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube customers across the globe. No less than 200 influencers with connections to the Chinese language authorities or its state media are working in 38 totally different languages, in response to analysis from Miburo, a agency that tracks overseas disinformation operations.

“You can see how they’re trying to infiltrate every one of these countries,” mentioned Miburo President Clint Watts, a former FBI agent. “It is just about volume, ultimately. If you just bombard an audience for long enough with the same narratives people will tend to believe them over time.”

Whereas Russia’s warfare on Ukraine was being broadly condemned as a brazen assault on democracy, self-described “traveler,” “story-teller” and “journalist” Li Jingjing took to YouTube to offer a different narrative.

She posted a video to her account called “Ukraine crisis: The West ignores wars & destructions it brings to Middle East,” in which she mocked US journalists covering the war. She’s also dedicated other videos to amplifying Russian propaganda about the conflict, including claims of Ukrainian genocide or that the US and NATO provoked Russia’s invasion.

Li Jingjing says in her YouTube profile that she is eager to show her roughly 21,000 subscribers “the world through my lens.” But what she does not say in her segments on Ukraine, which have tens of thousands of views, is that she is a reporter for CGTN, articulating views that are not just her own but also familiar Chinese government talking points.

Most of China’s influencers use pitches similar to Li Jingjing’s in hopes of attracting audiences around the world, including the US, Egypt and Kenya. The personalities, many of them women, call themselves “travelers,” sharing photos and videos that promote China as an idyllic destination.

“They clearly have identified the ‘Chinese lady influencer’ is the way to go,” Watts said of China.

The AP identified dozens of these accounts, which collectively have amassed more than 10 million followers and subscribers. Many of the profiles belong to Chinese state media reporters who have in recent months transformed their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube accounts — platforms that are largely blocked in China — and begun identifying as “bloggers,” “influencers” or non-descript “journalists.” Nearly all of them were running Facebook ads, targeted to users outside of China, that encourage people to follow their pages.

The personalities do not proactively disclose their ties to China’s government and have largely phased out references in their posts to their employers, which include CGTN, China Radio International and Xinhua News Agency.

Foreign governments have long tried to exploit social media, as well as its ad system, to influence users. During the 2016 US election, for example, a Russian internet agency paid in rubles to run more than 3,000 divisive political ads targeting Americans.

In response, tech companies like Facebook and Twitter promised to better alert American users to foreign propaganda by labelling state-backed media accounts.

But the AP found in its review that most of the Chinese influencer social media accounts are inconsistently labelled as state-funded media. The accounts — like those belonging to Li Jingjing and Vica Li — are often labelled on Facebook or Instagram, but are not flagged on YouTube or TikTok. Vica Li’s account is not labelled on Twitter. Last month, Twitter began identifying Li Jingjing’s account as Chinese state-media.

Vica Li said in a YouTube video that she is disputing the labels on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. She did not respond to a detailed list of questions from the AP.

Often, followers who are lured in by accounts featuring scenic images of China’s landscape might not be aware that they’ll also encounter state-endorsed propaganda.

Jessica Zang’s picturesque Instagram photos show her smiling beneath a beaming sun, kicking fresh powered snow atop a ski resort on the Altai Mountains in China’s Xinjiang region during the Beijing Olympics. She describes herself as a video creator and blogger who hopes to present her followers with “beautiful pics and videos about life in China.”

Zang, a video blogger for CGTN, rarely mentions her employer to her 1.3 million followers on Facebook. Facebook and Instagram identify her account as “state-controlled media” but she is not labelled as such on TikTok, YouTube or on Twitter, where Zang lists herself as a “social media influencer.”

“I think it’s likely by choice that she doesn’t put any state affiliations, because you put that label on your account, people start asking certain types of questions,” Rui Zhong, who researches technology and the China-US relationship for the Washington-based Wilson Center, said of Zang.

Peppered between tourism photos are posts with more obvious propaganda. One video titled “What foreigners in BEIJING think of the CPC and their life in China?” options Zang interviewing foreigners in China who gush in regards to the Chinese language Communist Occasion and demand they are not surveilled by the federal government the way in which outsiders may suppose.

“We actually need to let extra individuals … know what China is actually like,” Zang tells viewers.

That is an necessary purpose in China, which has launched coordinated efforts to form its picture overseas and whose president, Xi Jinping, has spoken brazenly of his need to have China perceived favourably on the worldwide stage.

In the end, accounts like Zang’s are meant to obscure international criticisms of China, mentioned Jessica Brandt, a Brookings Establishment professional on overseas interference and disinformation.

“They want to promote a positive vision of China to drown out their human rights records,” Brandt mentioned.

Li Jingjing and Zang didn’t return messages from the AP in search of remark. CGTN didn’t reply to repeated interview requests. CGTN America, which is registered as a overseas agent with the Justice Division and has disclosed having industrial preparations with a number of worldwide information organizations, together with the AP, CNN and Reuters, didn’t return messages. A lawyer who has represented CGTN America didn’t reply both.

A spokesman for the Chinese language Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, mentioned in an announcement, “Chinese media and journalists carry out normal activities independently, and should not be assumed to be led or interfered by the Chinese government.”

China’s curiosity within the influencer realm turned extra evident in December after it was revealed that the Chinese language Consulate in New York had paid $300,000 (roughly Rs. 230 lakh) for New Jersey agency Vippi Media to recruit influencers to publish messages to Instagram and TikTok followers throughout the Beijing Olympics, together with content material that may spotlight China’s work on local weather change.

It is unclear what the general public noticed from that marketing campaign, and if the social media posts have been correctly labeled as paid ads by the Chinese language Consulate, as Instagram and TikTok require. Vippi Media has not supplied the Justice Division, which regulates overseas affect campaigns by means of a 1938 statute generally known as the International Brokers Registration Act, a duplicate of the posts it paid influencers to disseminate, though federal regulation requires the corporate to take action.

Vipp Jaswal, Vippi Media’s CEO, declined to share particulars in regards to the posts with the AP.

In different circumstances, the cash and motives behind these Facebook posts, YouTube movies and podcasts are so murky that even those that create them say they weren’t conscious the Chinese language authorities was financing the undertaking.

Chicago radio host John St. Augustine advised the AP {that a} buddy who owns New World Radio in Falls Church, Virginia, invited him to host a podcast referred to as “The Bridge” with a staff in Beijing. The hosts mentioned every day life and music within the US and China, inviting music trade staff as company.

He says he did not know CGTN had paid New World Radio $389,000 (roughly Rs. 300 lakh) to supply the podcast. The station was additionally paid thousands and thousands of {dollars} to broadcast CGTN content material 12 hours every day, in response to paperwork filed with the Justice Division on behalf of the radio firm.

“How they did all that, I had no clue,” St. Augustine mentioned. “I was paid by a company here in the United States.”

The station’s relationship with CGTN resulted in December, mentioned New World Radio co-owner Patricia Lane.

The Justice Division not too long ago requested public enter on the way it ought to replace the FARA statute to account for the ephemeral world of social media and its transparency challenges.

“It’s not leaflets and hard copy newspapers anymore,” FARA unit chief Jennifer Kennedy Gellie mentioned of messaging. It is “tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram images.”

A rising refrain of English-speaking influencers has additionally cultivated a web based area of interest by selling pro-Chinese language messaging in YouTube movies or tweets.

Final April, as CGTN sought to develop its community of influencers, it invited English audio system to affix a months-long competitors that may finish with jobs working as social media influencers in London, Nairobi, Kenya or Washington. Hundreds utilized, CGTN mentioned in September, describing the occasion as a “window for young people around the world to understand China.”

British video blogger Jason Lightfoot raved in regards to the alternative in a video on YouTube promoting the occasion.

“So many crazy experiences that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, and that’s all thanks to CGTN,” Lightfoot mentioned in a video he mentioned was filmed from China tech firm Huawei’s campus.

Lightfoot, who didn’t reply to requests for remark, doesn’t disclose this relationship with CGTN on his YouTube profile, the place he has accrued thousands and thousands of views with headlines like “The Olympics Backfired on USA — Disastrous Regret” and “Western Media Lies about China.”

The video matters are sometimes in sync with these of different pro-China bloggers like Cyrus Janssen, a US citizen dwelling in Canada. Through the Olympics, Janssen and Lightfoot each shared movies celebrating Gu’s three-medal win, utilizing equivalent photographs of the Olympian in posts that blasted the US

“USA’s boycott failure … Eileen Gu Wins Gold!” Lightfoot posted on February 10. That very same day, Janssen uploaded a video titled “Is Eileen Gu a Traitor to America? American Expat Shares the Truth.”

In emails to the AP, Janssen mentioned his movies are meant to teach individuals about China and mentioned he is by no means accepted cash from the Chinese language authorities. However when pressed for particulars about a few of his partnerships, which embody Chinese language tech corporations, Janssen responded solely with questions on an AP’s reporter wage. The AP additionally discovered movies that present him showing on CGTN broadcasts.

The Western influencers routinely decry what they see as distorted American media protection of Beijing and life there. Some posts, for example, have ridiculed Western issues over the protection of Chinese language tennis participant Peng Shuai, who disappeared from view after leveling sexual assault allegations towards a former high-ranking member of China’s ruling Communist Occasion. She resurfaced across the Olympics in a managed interview through which she vigorously denied wrongdoing by Chinese language officers and mentioned her preliminary allegations had created an “huge misunderstanding.”

Her abrupt about-face prompted skeptical reactions within the West, which YouTuber Andy Boreham mocked in a video through which he invoked language paying homage to the MeToo motion. “I wonder what happened to #BelieveAllWomen,” he said.

Boreham is a New Zealander and columnist for Shanghai Daily. Twitter recently labelled his account as Chinese-state affiliated media. His YouTube account remains unlabelled. In a statement, YouTube said it only applies state-affiliated media labels to organizations, not individuals who work for or with state-funded media.

In a YouTube post last year, Lightfoot, who has more than 200,000 subscribers, marvelled at video footage of what he said were “clean, modern, peaceful, pleasant” streets of China. The publish then lower to video of gritty, trash-strewn streets he mentioned have been in Philadelphia.

“When I first saw this video,” he says by the use of narration, “I actually thought it was from a movie. I thought it was from a zombie movie or some kind of end-of-the-world movie. But it’s not. This is real. This is America.”

YouTubers Matthew Tye, an American, and Winston Sterzel, who’s from South Africa, consider that, in lots of circumstances, China’s paying for movies to be created.

Their proof?

The pair was included final yr on an electronic mail pitch to quite a few YouTube influencers from an organization that recognized itself as Hong Kong Pear Know-how. The e-mail requested the influencers to share a promotional video for China’s Hainan province, a vacationer seaside vacation spot, on their channels.

Tye and Sterzel, who spent years dwelling in China and have become vocal critics of its authorities, assume they have been in all probability included on the pitch by mistake.

However, intrigued, they engaged in a back-and-forth with the corporate whereas feigning curiosity within the supply. The corporate consultant quickly adopted up with a brand new request — that they publish a propaganda video that claimed COVID-19 didn’t originate in China, the place the primary case was detected, however slightly from North American white-tailed deer.

“We could offer $2,000 (roughly Rs. 1,51,700) (totally negotiable considering the nature of this type of content) lemme know if u are interested,” an worker named Joey wrote, in response to emails shared with the AP.

After Tye and Sterzel requested for articles that may again up the false declare, the emails stopped.

In an electronic mail to the AP, a Pear Know-how worker confirmed he had contacted Tye and Sterzel, however mentioned he didn’t know a lot in regards to the shopper, including “it might be from the government??”

Tye and Sterzel say the change pulls again the curtain on how China pushes propaganda by means of influencers who revenue from it.

“There’s a very easy formula to become successful,” Sterzel mentioned in an interview. “It’s simply to praise the Chinese government, to praise China and talk about how great China is and how bad the West is.”

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