Russia isn’t the only nation using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to spread its political message across in the United States; China also is using social media–albeit in different ways–to sway public opinion and make the Communist country look favorable to the American public, research has found.
China’s state-sponsored media is using English-language social-media operations–including targeted advertisements on Facebook–to push positive propaganda about the country to American users, according to a new assessment from security intelligence firm Recorded Future.
It’s already well known that Russia has used U.S. social media to sway not just public opinion but also results in the 2006 U.S. presidential election. Now the research takes a deeper dive into how China is doing something similar, although to support a different political agenda, according to a blog post outlining the findings by Recorded Future’s Insikt Group.
“These differences in technique are driven by dissimilar foreign policy and strategic goals,” researchers wrote in the post. “President Xi Jinping has global strategic goals for China different from those President Vladimir Putin has for Russia; as a result, the social media influence techniques used by China are different from those used by Russia.”
The key difference in the two social-media influence campaigns is that Russia’s tends to focus on the negative–that is, painting the democratic process in a negative light in an attempt to undermine it, as well as trying to divide the opinions of people in the United States to push its own preferred political outcomes and wishes.
China, on the other hand, has taken a more positive approach in the sense that it portrays its own government in a positive light and tries to convince people that China’s rise as a world leader will be “beneficial, cooperative and constructive for the global community,” researchers wrote.
“This goal requires a coordinated global message and technique, which presents a strong, confident and optimistic China,” they said in the post.
Social media as propaganda tool
Insikt researchers were inspired by Russia’s now-infamous tampering with the U.S. 2006 presidential election and its use of social media in that effort to investigate how China also might be doing a similar thing.
Indeed, China is well-known–alongside Russia and other nations–to be a key adversary of the United States in cybersecurity, with state-sponsored actors mounting cyber attacks that target U.S. entities as part of a government-supported agenda.
Researchers analyzed data from several Western social media platforms from Oct. 1, 2018 through Feb. 22, 2019, focusing on the English-language social media activity of six major state-run propaganda organizations: Xinhua, People’s Daily, China Global Television (CGTN), China Central Television (CCTV), China Plus News, and the Global Times. Their research encompassed more than 40,000 posts.
Researchers chose these outlets because they are highly digitized, have accounts on multiple English-language social-media platforms, and are associated with Chinese intelligence agencies and/or English-language propaganda systems, they said.
The team also cited a November 2018 paper published by the Hoover Institution–in which more than 30 preeminent China scholars from the West collaborated on findings that detail China’s influence operations abroad–to support its own research discoveries.
China’s polished Instagram image
Insikt studied and displayed posts from the Instagram accounts of Xinhua and the People’s Daily as evidence of how China is carefully molding the image of the country to the American public to inspire them to support the government’s political goals.
Both accounts have a large number of followers but don’t follow many other accounts–typical of Instagram “influence”-type accounts that want to promote themselves, not engage in the overall social-media conversation.
Moreover, the photographs and videos posted by these accounts show China in an overwhelmingly favorable light in variations on several core themes, researchers said. These include: China’s natural beauty; appealing cultural traditions and heritage; the overseas visits by Chinese leaders or visits by foreign leaders to China; the positive impact China has in global fields such as science, technology and sports; and breaking global news.
China also is using paid advertisements by Xinhua, People’s Daily, CGTN and China Daily on Facebook, among other platforms, to spread its message, according to Insikt. And while these ads have been deemed “overtly political” by researchers and also identified by Facebook as such–which would require a “paid for by” disclaimer–the Insikt team noticed something strange that would favor China’s influence campaign.
“None of the advertisements run by Xinhua or China Daily on Facebook that were retained as part of the ‘political’ archive over our research period were annotated in the Facebook platform as ‘paid for by’ at the time they were run,” according to the blog post. “Therefore, users viewing the posts during the period in which they were active would not have known that the advertisements were deemed overtly ‘political’ or of national importance, or even that they were ultimately purchased by the Chinese state.”
Campaign of ‘political hostility’
Insikt researchers concluded that China’s social-media influence campaign is creating “an intentionally distorted and biased narrative” for U.S. social-media users to swallow for the country’s own “hostile political purposes,” quoting the Hoover Institution’s assessment.
“As expertly explained in the Hoover Institution paper, these influence operations are not benign in nature, but support China’s goals to ‘redefine its place in the world as a global player'” by exploiting the open-minded nature of U.S. society to promote a highly skewed and utopian view of its government and the Communist party, researchers wrote.
While this news probably comes as little surprise to the average politically-minded American social-media user, what can be done about it is another question, one that researchers found a bit tricky to answer.
While at this point it doesn’t seem feasible to stop China from continuing its propaganda campaign, researchers believe that identifying it and publicizing it is a key first step to educating people to think critically about what they see released from the country on social media rather than accepting the truth of it.
“It is … imperative that we not be complacent when confronting Chinese information manipulation on social media,” Insikt researchers said. “Identifying the goals and techniques of these influence operations is the first step toward countering their deleterious effects.”