How China Uses Western Influencers As Pawns In Its Propaganda War

China is recruiting YouTubers to report on the country in a positive light and counter the West’s increasingly negative perceptions. “The videos have a casual, homespun feel. But on the other side of the camera often stands a large apparatus of government organizers, state-controlled news media and other official amplifiers — all part of the Chinese government’s widening attempts to spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet,” the report says. “State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers’ travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves. They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.”

Typically, the Chinese government support comes in the form of free organized trips around China, particularly in Xinjiang. By showing the influencers a carefully sanitized image of life in the country, the authorities don’t need to worry about negative stories. They simply make it easy for the YouTubers to present images of jolly peasants and happy city-dwellers, because that’s all they are allowed to see. One of the authors of the New York Times piece, Paul Mozur, noted on Twitter another important way that the authorities are able to help their influencer guests. Once produced, the China-friendly videos are boosted massively by state media and diplomatic Facebook and Twitter accounts: “One video by Israeli influencer Raz Gal-Or portraying Xinjiang as ‘totally normal’ was shared by 35 government connected accounts with a total of 400 million followers. Many were Chinese embassy Facebook accounts, which posted about the video in numerous languages.”

A new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Borrowing mouths to speak on Xinjiang,” has some more statistics on this practice: “Our data collection has found that, between January 2020 and August 2021, 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on US-based social media platforms have published at least 546 Facebook posts, Twitter posts and shared articles from [China Global Television Network], Global Times, Xinhua or China Daily websites that have amplified Xinjiang-related social media content from 13 influencer accounts. More than 50% of that activity occurred on Facebook.” Mozur says that the use of Western influencers in this way also allows employees of Beijing-controlled media, like the journalist Li Jingjing, to present themselves as independent YouTubers. On Twitter, however, she is labeled as “China state-affiliated media.” The Australian Strategic Policy Institute sees this as part of a larger problem (pdf): “labelling schemes adopted by some video-sharing and social media platforms to identify state-affiliated accounts are inconsistently applied to media outlets and journalists working for those outlets. In addition, few platforms appear to have clear policies on content from online influencers or vloggers whose content may be facilitated by state-affiliated media, through sponsored trips, for example.”

According to Mozur, China’s state broadcaster is actively looking for more influencers, offering bonuses and publicity for those who sign up. In the US, China’s consulate general is paying $300,000 to a firm to recruit influencers for the Winter Olympics, ranging from Celebrity Influencers with millions of Instagram or TikTok followers, to Nano Influencers, with merely a few thousand. The ultimate goal of deploying these alternative voices is not to disprove negative stories appearing in Western media, but something arguably worse, as the New York Times report explains: “China is the new super-abuser that has arrived in global social media,” said Eric Liu, a former content moderator for Chinese social media. “The goal is not to win, but to cause chaos and suspicion until there is no real truth.”

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