China ramps up propaganda machine to tune up ‘volume’ on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok

In 2009 China committed $7.25 billion for a global news presence and by 2015 it was spending $7-10 billion annually on external propaganda

FP Staff September 19, 2022 09:22:37 IST
China ramps up propaganda machine to tune up ‘volume’ on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok

Representational image. Reuters

New Delhi: With favourable opinion abroad at an all times low and decades of initiative, experience and resources at hand, China is eyeing to up its propaganda game by reaching more of the world beyond its diaspora on platforms that keep the global audiences hooked.

Outlining the Chinese ability to ramp up the volume of propaganda to dominate global public opinion, Fu Hua, editor-in-chief of China’s largest and most influential state news agency Xinhua, recently claimed that efforts were on to better the presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Chinese propaganda, unlike Russian propaganda, has so far managed to remain out of attention. But it is equally determined to disrupt the flow of credible information in open societies and also has the means to invest in media and necessary infrastructure.

In 2009 China committed $7.25 billion for a global news presence and by 2015 it was spending $7-10 billion annually on external propaganda.

Under the ‘Big Propaganda’ initiative the state news agency Xinhua expanded its bureaus to almost double and many other organisations ventured into foreign language editions and partnerships abroad, especially in emerging markets where resources to fund journalism are scarce.

China has since invested heavily in media in Africa. After its state broadcaster, CGTN opened its African bureau in 2012 other Chinese media organisations like China Radio International and China Daily also ventured into Africa and today have free and low-cost local options in English, Chinese and Kiswahili across media. As Chinese organisations increasingly get involved in Africa’s distribution networks news aggregators, internet providers and satellite companies, they get a better chance to project an approved narrative and it gives local journalists good reasons to stay from critical coverage of China.

The propaganda efforts received a push further after Xi Jinping took over in 2013 with his ‘telling China’s story well’ idea. This increased the focus on online media and over the last decade China prioritised augmenting its online propaganda capacity. This effort has increased the online presence of Chinese diplomats, who before this did not play significant communication roles.

Chinese diplomats tweeted 201,382 times, earning nearly 7 million likes and 1.3 million retweets between June 2020 and February 2021, a recent study by Oxford University found.

Although the researchers lacked the data to connect these retweets to China, the user engagement seemed engineered as one in 10 retweets came from accounts that were later suspended and most of these handles retweeted diplomats repeatedly in a pattern. The conclusion of the study noted, “extensive evidence for where and how a powerful state actor like the PRC may be able to create an illusion of inflated influence over global discourse.”

China, however, in 2021 denied claims made by the Oxford study.

But for all the resources and effort that go into the Chinese global propaganda efforts, the results aren’t very favourable. A Pew research earlier this year that surveyed people in 19 countries showed that only 27 per cent of respondents had a favourable opinion of China with negative views at an all-time high.

The research however showed in Malaysia and Singapore, both home to large ethnic Chinese populations, a majority holds a favourable opinion of China. It suggests that the efforts aren’t a complete failure. In fact, for China, which prioritises relations with the diaspora, it is a win.

The failure in connecting to those beyond the diaspora is easy to see. The propaganda centres on the Communist party’s achievements, the defensive approach on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang and the lack of rigour in reaching out to those outside the diaspora.

But, with the resources and years of experience at China’s disposal, it would be mistaken to assume that Chinese propaganda won’t be able to break out of these shortcomings.

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