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THE ENLISTMENT OF FOREIGN SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS BY STATE-OWNED MEDIA AND THE CCP

Hana Buljko, Adam Hunt, Sophia Gore, Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team

Week of Monday, July 12, 2021


Political Poster of Mao[1]


Foreign social media influencers are believed to be posting video content predominantly on YouTube containing disinformation regarding COVID-19 and China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Due to the lack of regulation and guidelines on YouTube outside of China, this content is likely to reach a large and diverse audience with minimal exclusivity. Consequently, the dissemination of disinformation by these influencers, also known as “Global Stringers,” has a significant global effect on perceptions the public holds on political situations of a high severity which China has strategic interests. While China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) license has been revoked by Ofcom in 2020, its broadcasting license was renewed by France, which means that disinformation is still circulating throughout the West. The “Media Challengers” campaign has generated concern towards the spread of disinformation however, China’s method of using less-regulated platforms such as Facebook to spread propaganda is going unnoticed and could create a domino effect of other countries utilizing the same techniques. Should social media companies such as Facebook continue to prevent the spread of disinformation and propaganda through their lax content regulation, it could lead to Western governments restricting their citizens from using these platforms. While this approach may prevent the West from interacting with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) disinformation and propaganda, it also removes the liberty belonging to its population.


Since CGTN’s launch of the “Media Challengers” campaign in April 2021, foreign social media influencers have been posting video content on YouTube that challenges reports created by independent media outlets regarding the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and China’s official COVID-19 policies.[2] Many of the social media influencers have several hundred thousand subscribers on their YouTube channels, which has not only generated extensive engagement from nationalist users but such content has also been widely broadcast on Chinese state media channels such as CGTN.[3] Due to the popularity of these social media influencers on YouTube and other social media platforms, this disseminated disinformation reflects pro-Chinese communist propaganda that can be easily accessed by a large and diverse audience due to the non-exclusive nature of social media. The globalization of the Internet and social networks, without adequate control over the content shared, makes it very likely that disinformation will reach large-scale dissemination, which would make it even more difficult to control it. China’s awareness of the West’s hostility and distrust towards them thus allows them to garner support from international audiences, which can add to the legitimacy of its communist propaganda. While CGTN and the CCP can benefit from the fast-paced nature of social media and the internet and utilize it to spread disinformation, individuals that are critical of China’s actions can utilize the online sphere in the same way and voice their opposition publicly. Although the majority view China as a state which has violated basic human rights, the perception of China is still vital to the CCP and state-owned media due to the inclusivity of social media which consequently allows for pro-Chinese propaganda to be discredited and exposed. As Chinese state media outlets have been cooperating with these social media influencers by broadcasting their content, this widens the target audience of such disinformation to Chinese citizens as well as the followers of these vloggers and regular YouTube users. This can assist in legitimizing their content as it is being broadcasted by popular mainstream media in China and can result in domestic audiences in China believing the disinformation regarding COVID-19 and the Uyghurs. It is possible that those who only interact with influencers' content through Chinese channels due to lack of internet access, may be influenced by propaganda or misinformation coming from official sources. The likelihood that these audiences will engage with information contesting pro-Chinese communist propaganda is low, which may harden beliefs supporting China’s actions relating to the pandemic and the Uyghurs.


There have been numerous reports with supporting evidence that China is committing a breach of human rights against the Uyghur community and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang province of North-Western China through both physical and psychological torture.[4] The majority of the West believe that China is committing genocide against these groups by sterilizing women to reduce birth rates and placing them in “re-education” camps to break religious and cultural traditions.[5] As foreign media outlets and journalists are the main sources of information on the treatment of the Uyghurs, social media influencers challenging China’s breach of human rights can create uncertainty in the public about China’s responsibility for committing genocide. With contradicting information sources, the public may face difficulty in establishing which information is accurate thus, there is a greater chance of this disinformation infiltrating the beliefs international audiences have towards China.


China’s stringent social media terms and conditions restrict the content that domestic social media influencers are allowed to publish, with constant monitoring by internet moderators and the risk of being detained or arrested if their content is deemed as being critical of China’s government.[6] As China is not capable of regulating and monitoring the media outside its borders, the government has likely resorted to utilizing foreign influencers to their advantage to spread the Chinese government’s official version of the Uyghur situation which denies the human rights abuse of the Uyghurs and Muslims in Xinjiang. This is done by state-owned media in China such as CGTN, by offering to pay for transport and accommodation costs to China and cash rewards of up to $10,000 USD to incentivize and recruit more members to the campaign.[7] As these incentives are appealing, state media outlets are secure in having well-known social media influencers spread the campaign messages that directly oppose the West’s stance on current affairs and events in China. YouTube’s guidelines are vague and have been unsuccessful in regulating videos containing language which suggests they contain disinformation.[8] YouTube’s guidelines and policies have not evolved or adapted to detect this new form of propaganda since the content is not directly made and dispersed by the Chinese government or its news media but rather by social media influencers, both foreign nationals and Chinese citizens that reside abroad, for example, university students in the United Kingdom. As Youtube’s existing policies create a hesitancy on whether such content should be removed or closely monitored, China can exploit the freedom and democracy present in the West to spread its propaganda and disinformation campaigns on a global scale with minimal barriers.


The disinformation that is manufactured or disseminated by these “Global Stringers,” flares up global tensions in areas that China has strategic interests in. These include and are not limited to Xinjiang, Taiwan, the South China Sea, India, and the African continent.[9] While the majority of these disinformation campaigns focus on undermining trust in institutions or democracy alongside sowing discord between allies, a pro-Chinese message is now becoming a more dominant alternative.[10] The underlying message behind the majority of this propaganda remains the issue of sovereignty, whether that be explicit in the case of Hong Kong, or more of cultural hegemony at the expense of the United States in Taiwan or the South China Sea.[11] By bypassing globally untrusted Chinese news sources and instead utilizing Western individuals as the primary beacon of information, China has successfully begun to manipulate the liberal system against itself. Although the major social media companies remain committed to dealing with disinformation, their priorities are presently set on the current politicized COVID-19 crisis, allowing China to continue to gain a foothold against limited resources combatting its spread. China has also utilized the COVID-19 crisis to undermine trust in governments that remain hostile to China, leaving areas such as Taiwan more fractured than ever.[12] In the case of Xinjiang, by utilizing propagandist travel reviewers, China has tapped into a Western cultural product and exported it in the same manner, but with a completely biased or untrue message. As limited action is currently being taken against these foreign social media influencers, it remains a viable route for future disinformation campaigns. Though the content is constantly amended, Xinjiang has maintained its focus due to its highly publicized campaign, while the secondary focus in the South China Sea will eventually become the primary focus of these campaigns.


Many tactics utilized by China bear a close resemblance to Russian methods deployed in the former Soviet bloc, Western Europe, and the United States. Although China and Russia share similar rivals and borrow techniques, they remain cautious of each other and limit intelligence sharing to specific military operations.[13]The techniques include more obvious methods of either employing officials to use social media or speak in Western countries to act as a deliberate scapegoat.[14]China specifically uses multi-pronged methods including obvious propaganda, coordinated state cyber operations, and the newly founded exploitation of social media influencers. Facebook remains the primary target, due to its relatively lax response in deterring, detecting, and defeating operations. Although groups and individuals that endorse and disperse propaganda online have been removed and prohibited from using Facebook, they will likely relocate to other social media platforms and use evolving propaganda tactics to prevent detection and continue spreading disinformation regarding China’s actions. The most successful tactic of political engagement currently is isolating similar-minded individuals, echo-chambering groups with misinformation, and allowing it to flourish.[15] The success of these tactics could encourage other countries who are perceived as hostile by Western countries to adopt large-scale disinformation campaigns against the United States and European countries. China and Russia’s alliance regarding coordinated propaganda campaigns strengthen individuals’ perceptions of its legitimacy and validity. This could pose a significant threat to social media users’ ability to determine whether these propaganda campaigns are positive or negative and spreading disinformation. This places a strain on targets of these campaigns, including opposing governments and global institutions, such as the United Nations, as it is likely that they will be expected to invest in dedicated units to better detect and defeat the disinformation divisions within China and Russia, and potentially other opponents if the use of social media influencers to spread propaganda is adopted by other governments.


The most directly impacted actor remains the social media companies, whose perceived ability to prevent the spread of disinformation and regulate content properly continues to decline. President Joe Biden’s recent accusation that Facebook is “killing people”[16] is part of a wider call for greater regulation on the major technology firms, which is receiving attacks not only from foreign governments or agitators spreading disinformation but also civil liberty activists.[17] Facebook cannot afford to lose another public relations battle in an issue that has a relatively limited downside if properly engaged. However, Facebook remains limited by its scope of regulation. Despite being a global power in itself, security operations to stop and identify propaganda remain woefully low with some teams as low as ten people.[18] Facebook can make the case that protocols will be implemented but considering that it has not been entirely successful in regulating the implementation of paid advertisement on Instagram, which is a far less complicated model, the future does not bode well for their ability to police paid propaganda and disinformation.[19] This leaves the possibility of countries becoming autonomous in restricting the movement of known “Stringers” and begin to curtail certain civil liberties, similar to how Nigeria banned the use of Twitter for its citizens and monitor other social media platforms including Facebook in June 2021.[20] This not only offers additional information for China to propagate but also undermines the West’s liberal international reputation. Governments that permit free social media companies to operate and thrive are the most at risk if these companies fail to address these issues as they may feel inclined to ban these platforms to deter propaganda from being spread online and minimize the likelihood of their citizens interacting with pro-Chinese propaganda.


Recommendations


The most popular countermeasures used by social media companies to prevent the spread of mis/disinformation on their platforms are reviewing published content, establishing strike systems, and utilizing bot-detection technology to remove social bots from its platform. When used together, the current countermeasures are effective in removing and preventing mis/disinformation on various social media platforms. The continued large amount of false media surfacing on platforms with the current countermeasures in place brings to question their effectiveness. Although these countermeasures aren't able to prevent all mis/disinformation from cycling platforms, they effectively suppress the influx of misleading information, but cannot be relied on as a long-term solution to prevent the spread of disinformation by social media influencers enlisted by the CCP and the Chinese government.


A countermeasure to deter the CCP and the Chinese government from recruiting foreign social media influencers is to update platform community guidelines to require users to self-report content sponsored by a company, government, etc. All sponsored content will be labeled by the platform as sponsored, making users who consume the shared content aware that the post's message is curated and may not be factual. Labeling sponsored content informs users that the content may only be produced for monetary gain, regardless of whether the influencer believes in its promoted message. Furthermore, fellow platform users will have the ability to flag/report content that appears sponsored. After a post receives enough reports, the platform will review/investigate the post's content before continued general consumption. Posts that do not adhere to the updated community guidelines will be labeled as sponsored content or removed from the platform. Users who failed to self-report their content will receive a form of sanction depending on the severity of the posted content. Requiring sponsored posts to be labeled as ‘sponsored’ will help prevent the CCP and the Chinese government from enlisting foreign influencers because the influencers are required to self-report content as sponsored, ultimately defeating the purpose of their enlistment.


To prevent the CCP and the Chinese government from continuing to enlist foreign social media influencers, the Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team recommends social media companies continue to use pre-existing countermeasures: label and remove posts with misleading/harmful content, use strike systems, and detect/delete bots. Additionally, CTSC recommends that social media companies update sponsored content policies: require users to self-report that their content is sponsored, establish disciplinary consequences for users who fail to report their sponsored content, and allow other users to report content that appears sponsored (content that is not already self-reported).


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) team of Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers will continue to monitor the threat of the CCP and government enlistment of foreign social media influencers as it happens. These officers and members of the PACOM Team, the EUCOM Team, and the Behavior/Leadership (B/L) Team will work together to evaluate additional developments that may arise as a result. Additionally, the Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team will continue to monitor the situation and provide a thorough risk assessment.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] “Political poster Mao” by Francisco Anzola licensed under Creative Commons

[2] The foreigners in China’s disinformation drive, BBC News, July 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-57780023

[3] Ibid

[4] China has created a dystopian hellscape in Xinjiang, Amnesty report says, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-57386625

[5] Who are the Uyghurs and why is China being accused of genocide?, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22278037

[6] The foreigners in China’s disinformation drive, BBC News, July 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-57780023

[7] Ibid

[8] China is exporting propaganda while the rest of the world stands idly by, The Washington Post, June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/27/china-is-exporting-propaganda-while-rest-world-stands-idly-by/

[9] China’s Disinformation Campaign in the Philippines, The Diplomat, October 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/chinas-disinformation-campaign-in-the-philippines/

[10] Ibid

[11] How China Ramped Up Disinformation Efforts During the Pandemic, Council on Foreign Relations, September 2020, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-china-ramped-disinformation-efforts-during-pandemic

[12] Taiwan’s unity cracks under Chinese disinformation onslaught, Financial Times, June 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f22f1011-0630-462a-a21e-83bae4523da7

[13] Fanatic fans or fake followers? Chinese diplomats and their social media networks, University of Oxford, May 2021, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2021-05-11-fanatic-fans-or-fake-followers-chinese-diplomats-and-their-social-media-networks 2

[14] Russia and China team up on the Indian Ocean, The Interpreter, December 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/russia-and-china-team-indian-ocean

[15] Fanatic fans or fake followers? Chinese diplomats and their social media networks, University of Oxford, May 2021, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2021-05-11-fanatic-fans-or-fake-followers-chinese-diplomats-and-their-social-media-networks 2

[16] Covid misinformation on Facebook is killing people - Biden, BBC News, July 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57870778

[17] Facebook under attack for plan to secure peoples private messages with encryption, Independent, February 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/facebook-messenger-whatsapp-safety-privacy-children-nspcc-priti-patel-a9322431.html

[18] Facebook has a plan to tackle fake news – here's why it won't work, New Scientist, October 2019, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2221963-facebook-has-a-plan-to-tackle-fake-news-heres-why-it-wont-work/

[19] Social media stars under fire for flouting rules on advertising, The Guardian, June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jun/17/social-media-stars-under-fire-for-flouting-rules-on-advertising

[20] After #TwitterBan, Nigerian govt moves to regulate Facebook, Whatsapp, others, Premium Times, June 2021, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/465871-after-twitterban-nigerian-govt-moves-to-regulate-facebook-whatsapp-others.html

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