Beijing fosters foreign influencers to spread its propaganda
They get access to both China's internet and global platforms, and cash in on both
China is offering foreign influencers access to its vast market in return for content that sings its praises and helps to spreads Beijing's desired narratives more widely around the world, according to think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
In a policy brief [PDF] published today titled "Singing from the CCP's songsheet," ASPI analysts Fergus Ryan and Daria Impiombato – along with independent contractor on contemporary Chinese politics and media Matt Knight – analyzed the output of over 120 foreign influencers who operate active accounts on Chinese video-streaming platforms such as Bilibili, Douyin, Xigua, and Toutiao.
Some, the report observes, have tens of millions of followers on Chinese social media, after discovering that "appealing to Chinese audiences' sense of nationalism can provide a fast track to gain popularity, increase their online presence and, ultimately, generate more revenue."
"Indeed, China's internet regulations encourage users to actively promote party propaganda – so many influencers have adapted to thrive in that system," the policy brief adds.
So far, so entrepreneurial.
But also not possible – unless influencers are enthusiastically pro-Beijing.
ASPI summarized China's strategy as follows:
By coordinating foreign influencers and other communicators, Beijing aspires to create a unified choir of voices capable of promoting Party narratives more effectively than traditional official PRC media. The ultimate goal is to shield CCP-controlled culture, discourse and ideology from the dangers of foreign and free political speech, thereby safeguarding the Party's legitimacy.
That bolstering of legitimacy happens in China and elsewhere. The policy brief quotes a state media worker as saying Beijing aims to "cultivate a group of 'foreign mouths,' 'foreign pens,' and 'foreign brains' who can stand up and speak for China at critical moments" at home and abroad.
At home, foreign influencers are useful even when they counter Chinese voices: according to the policy brief, a foreigner's account was promoted by Beijing as it painted a rosier picture of COVID containment measures than posts by Chinese citizens.
Outside the Great Firewall, the policy brief details one New Zealand influencer whose YouTube account has the tagline "Countering the Western anti-China narrative."
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Which is awkward, because China insists on asymmetric internet access. PRC citizens can only see and contribute to sites Beijing approves, while outsiders only get access to the Chinese internet if they're pro-Beijing. But China can participate freely in the global internet – either directly, or through proxies like influencers who know that backing Beijing helps contribute to livelihoods largely earned inside China.
China is growing its menagerie of such influencers, and has even set up a studio to guide their work. ASPI asserts that Beijing is "effectively co-opting a widespread network of international students at Chinese universities, cultivating them as a talent pool of young, multilingual, social-media-friendly influencers." Other students are recruited through competitions that offer prizes for pro-China vids – sometimes after a Beijing-funded trip to the Middle Kingdom.
Social media platforms try to spot this sort of stuff and restrict its reach. But ASPI's authors singled out X/Twitter for allowing verification of Beijing's tame influencers – a "step backwards" on Elon Musk’s watch.
The policy brief concludes that Beijing’s efforts are "likely to have significant implications for the global information landscape."
"The growing use of foreign influencers will make it increasingly difficult for social-media platforms, foreign governments and individuals to distinguish between genuine and/or factual content and propaganda," the document warns, which will make it harder to counter disinformation "and protect the integrity of public discourse."
Over time, ASPI feels "the line between independent voices and those influenced by the Party's narratives may become increasingly blurred, further challenging the ability of audiences to discern reportage from manipulation."
ASPI recommends social media platforms label Beijing-backed influencers and share info about them, so that rival networks can do likewise. The think tank also suggests educating students who intend to study abroad about the risks they face. Additionally, the research org wants governments to spend money to acquire a better understanding of Beijing's plan.
"Research topics such as disinformation, information operations and propaganda are complicated, multi-language, data-heavy and rapidly evolving areas of study," the policy document notes. "Governments, social-media platforms and civil-society organizations that rely heavily on expert research groups' insights and analysis should consider increased support and funding for such groups." ®