Great Firewall of China arrives Downunder

A new probe, via Reuters:

Australia on Thursday established an investigation into potential foreign political interference through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WeChat.

The review comes amid heightened Australian concerns that China is seeking to interfere in Canberra’s affairs, and after U.S. intelligence analysts found Russia had used social media to try and influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The bipartisan parliamentary Senate select committee was established after the ruling coalition government backed the opposition Labor Party’s proposal.

“The rise of ‘fake news’ and misinformation campaigns present a very real and present danger to democracy not only in Australia, but across the globe,” Labor lawmaker Penny Wong said.

“We must protect our democracy from malicious foreign actors.”

The investigation will need to report its findings by May 2022, around the time Australia will hold its next general election.

This about WeChat of course. It’s censorhsip is well known and is spreading, via the Canadian National Post:

As publisher of one of Canada’s few Chinese-language newspapers that dares to cover Beijing critically, Jack Jia feels he has a duty to give his readers balanced, skeptical reporting.

To that end, he tries to spread the reach of Chinese News by posting its articles on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese communications app used extensively by the diaspora here.

But that practice hit a sudden obstacle last month, when WeChat began restricting his use of the site, blocking access to his account and delivering an ominous message. Jia had been reported for “multiple instances of non-compliance,” it said.

He has been blocked three more times in recent weeks — the latest incident this past Sunday — but that was not all.

For six months, messages Jia posts in group chats have been invisible to users in China. And articles and other posts he puts on his WeChat Moments page, similar to a Facebook timeline, have been inaccessible even to people in Canada and the United States, he says.

WeChat’s censorship in China itself — a private-sector brick in the Great Firewall around the internet there — has been well-documented, but the publisher says he was stunned to find the app is now extending its tight control over content to this country, too.

His experience is not unique. Two other Chinese Canadians told the National Post of facing similar restrictions from WeChat, though none were told exactly why. An American activist began a White House petition calling for government help to counter the technology giant’s controls.

“I want to stop WeChat from brainwashing us,” said Jia. “I learned from Canadians, if you don’t like something, change it. It’s time for our lawmakers to change the law, so we can counter propaganda.”

It’s all part of the plan, via Mercator Institute of China Studies:

Although Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China, Chinese party-state media have built very active presences on these platforms. Lately, Chinese ambassadors around the world have been opening Twitter accounts to feed their government’s positions into global debates on China. Even though the propaganda may seem crude and inefficient at first sight, its long-term effects should not be underestimated.

The Chinese ambassadors to the United Kingdom, the United States, Austria and South Africa have all started using their new Twitter accounts this year. It is just the latest manifestation of a long-term project. Chinese party-state media have been actively using Western social media platforms since 2009, the year the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a major investment to boost the global presence of its media. The CCP’s aim was, and remains, to change global debates about China – and any other topic the Party cares about – to bring them closer in line with its own position. Its intention is to gradually change the conversation and increase the Party’s “discourse power” (话语权).

The reach of Chinese party state media on Western social media has expanded significantly since 2009. The first accounts were focused on English and Chinese language content – and these remain the principal languages used today. But since 2015 CCP media have been pursuing a strategy of media localization (媒体本土化), offering content in more languages and targeted at specific countries. Xinhua started a German language Twitter account, @XHdeutsch, as well as its country-specific Romanian and Italian Twitter channels (@XinhuaItalia and @XHRomania) in 2015. In the same year, Xinhua and the China Daily newspaper started using automatic geolocation to redirect the user to a specific language version of their page on Facebook.

Today, all major Chinese media targeted at foreign audiences around the world, as well as at overseas Chinese, have one or multiple presences on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Though people often speak of “state media”, Chinese media are all under the control of the party (see the infographic for affiliations of central media).

Social Media

Click bait and propaganda

The content posted and promoted by party-state media on Western channels varies from fluff to polemical attacks, but most is subtle and aimed at building Chinese media’s brands.

Much of the content consists of regular news stories that are similar to those reported by western news outlets, although it differs from these in that there is more “positive news” and “success stories” about China, such as development achievements in minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. On Twitter, the #Tibet and #Xinjiang hashtags are filled with images of animals and landscapes by party-state media. Attractive visuals and curious content or human-interest stories are used by most CCP media to draw in users, featuring cuddly pandas, other baby animals, impressive landscapes, and China’s technological achievements.

Mixed into this is content that is overtly political, such as posts promoting the Chinese political system or justifying directly China’s repressive policies in its minority areas. For instance, Chinese party-state media have highlighted supposed praise by foreign diplomats for the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang, where an estimated one million people have been interned in camps and many more are affected by the Party’s repressive policies. Some of the tweets posted by Chinese party-state media have been highly misleading, such as presenting protests in Hong Kong against the government as pro-government protests. In other cases, Xinhua used its Facebook account to dehumanize Hong Kong protesters by depicting them as cockroaches.

Some editors of party-state media are also quite active on platforms such as Twitter, like Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Global Times, who has over 100,000 followers, and the China Daily’s Europe bureau chief Chen Weihua. They frequently weigh in on hot topics like the Hong Kong protests, Huawei, the West’s supposed lack of freedom of speech, and “Western hypocrisy” towards China.

How successful these are is hard to gauge. The high number of followers suggest (though do not prove) that Chinese party-state media may have artificially inflated their followers and likes: On Facebook, China’s international news channel CGTN has 87 million likes, Xinhua has 67 million, and the People’s Daily has 70 million. By contrast, CNN “only” has 31 million and the BBC has 49 million. On Twitter, the English language version of Xinhua’s principal news account @XHNews has 12 million followers, and the People’s Daily has over 5.5 million.

A partial pushback from social media platforms

Up until recently, the Chinese party-state has been able to exploit the asymmetry in the information environment created by China’s internet censorship machine, colloquially known as the Great Firewall. Just a month after it started using social media platforms in the West in 2009, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Now, however, there appears to be a pushback. All the major CCP media had been making heavy use of the option to pay for promoted content, but very recently Twitter has stopped accepting paid content from party media as part of tightened rules on political and state-sponsored content. And responding to the larger debate in Western countries about “fake news” and political manipulation, Facebook has introduced an Ad Library to improve transparency around political advertising. This Ad Archive provides basic information on ads that are no longer active, such as how much was paid for the post and who the target audience was. Twitter also has an Ad Transparency platform, but only offers limited information on ads run over the past seven days.

Nevertheless, Chinese paid online commentators seem to have increased their activity on social media: In August, Twitter and Facebook announced that they had taken down accounts that had engaged in disinformation on the protests in Hong Kong. The same day, Twitter also announced that it would no longer allow most state media to promote tweets.

China targets multiple audiences

It is not possible to get a complete picture of who the ads were targeted at. Some information is available on Facebook, where ads are still permitted, but is not provided for ads that are still active. From the limited information we have, most of the discontinued ads on Facebook were targeted at the Global South. In these cases, CCP media appeared to be using displays of European support for China and its policies as a legitimizing force. For example, CGTN promoted an article on Angela Merkel stating that she wanted to strengthen multilateralism with China, and an article on an Asia-Europe meeting to promote the message that Europe recognizes China as a reliable partner. However, it is not just the Global South that has been targeted in this way. One ad targeted at the Balkans used the “success story” of Chinese investment in Africa rather than speaking about Chinese investment in the region directly.

While China experts may find much of this propaganda crude, it is clear that these people are not the target audience. As Liz Carter, a former translator at China Digital Times, said recently: “The point is not to convince everyone, but to convince enough people to win a public opinion war and drown out voices of reason. This is an often-overlooked aspect of CCP strategy, because those who know enough to care about it are the least likely to be affected by it, and the most likely to underestimate its harmful impact.”

Success of China’s strategy is difficult to assess

Looking at only the official accounts gives limited information on the resources the Chinese party-state can draw on to promote its messages through Western social media. Party-state media’s accounts on Western social media are just one part of the CCP’s attempts to gain more influence over global public opinion, and they are part of a long-term initiative to change how people globally talk about China.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about the success, or otherwise, of these media in influencing public opinion outside China. However, it is clear that they add to the overall asymmetry in the information environment, where Chinese media can spread their messages while western media are cut off from access to Chinese audiences. In order to ensure that this access is not used to systematically spread misleading news, a higher degree of transparency and more systematic investigation into communication patterns of the party-state’s media are required.

As we all read comments on this site it is obvious that there is a very steady flow of CCP astroturfers at work. If it is happening at MB then it is happening everywhere.

David Llewellyn-Smith
Latest posts by David Llewellyn-Smith (see all)

Comments

  1. “he was stunned to find” ……………….Really ? I am not sure why anyone would use WeChat except those Chinese happy to maintain a high social credit rating…. I can appreciate he was trying to provide some balance but surely he knows about Chinese global businesses and who they ultimately pay homage and blood to by now…..

    • If you want to pay for anything in China, you’re going to need WeChatPay.

      I’m surprised the Chinese haven’t started leaning on 9/DomainFax as they seem to publish some good articles against the CCP.

      For those interested in the Great Firewall, and the long plan, this is a great read or listen:
      https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n19/john-lanchester/document-number-nine

      China will dominate the West soon. They have leaders with a plan. Our leaders are self-interested and owned by short term business interests.

    • Pretty much every Chinese family will have a ‘family wechat’ group. While there is the propaganda aspect, 99% of WeChat usage is basically chatter.

  2. GunnamattaMEMBER

    Of course we had both the LNP and ALP overtly kissing WeChat bum cheek last election, didn’t we….

    • It’s the best way to send out political advertisement that looks like it’s officially from the AEC!!

    • Australia is the perfect test zone for chinese global domination.

      We are a microcosm of the Western world. Australia is currently the best testing spot for new games and IT products. Companies will release a product here, see how its sells and what percentage of the population take it up and based these results, release it in America, Canada and the UK/Europe.

      Based on this, we are perfect place to test taking over an English speaking country, whether by stealth or on ground activities. Australia is far enough away from the US and Europe not to be a clear and present danger to them and they will let us go as collateral damage rather than antagonise the chinese tiger. Australia can’t rely on them to defend us.

      Our value to China lays in our commodities. If China wants to go big, it needs to secure its supply chain of steel, coal to make steel and rare earth minerals, all of which makes us strategically valuable to them.

      Right now Hong Kong and Trump are sideshow distractions from the preparations happening on the main stage of the strategic theatre. News stories about chinese expansion into the South China sea, Philippines and Pacific has stopped but the work continues.

      Basically, we are scr3wed and as someone living in Darwin, where the port is owned by the chinese, I feel particularly sensitive to any machinations by the PRC.

      • Bubbles, chillax, my friend. Just because a Chinese company owns the port doesn’t mean they can sail the 1st fleet in there.

        That said, we need to push back and draw a line in the sand so that those crunts know where they stand.

        Personally, I think their economy is about to buckle and collapse, at which point they’ll be lucky to afford a Peking duck sizzle for their troops.

        • Oh Dom, dear sweet deluded boy, the Chinese have already done it -in Sydney- this year. They waltzed in unannounced and basically rubbed the aussies security forces noses it. The nsw state gov was outraged and Morrison crew were all ashen faced and gulping while they went into damage control saying “Oops, did we forget to tell you about it?”
          How does a government “forget” three military craft arriving in the nations largest city

          • Yes, but there is the ‘small’ issue of the US just launching their nuclear arsenal at the Chinese mainland and I’m fairly certain they (the US) have been granted a base in the NT. I can’t see the Chinese just waltzing in unopposed.

            Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to be living in Darwin (and surrounds) if things heat up in those parts, but I can’t see the Europeans or the US allowing the Chinese to annexe Australasia without consequences. They are economically ruined anyway so little to be concerned about (or a lot, potentially)

  3. The ‘west’ including us, should reinforce their firewall from the outside. Block all Chinese IPs except some required and specifically whitelisted tunnels.

    Goose, Gander.

    • Go further … get Twitter and Facebook to ban these diplomats and other govenment instruments on their platforms. Snub out there message.

      Antoher goose, gander request … can’t buy property or companies. Level playing field for all …

  4. Why we haven’t cut the cables and banned all goods from China at this stage beggars belief…………….

    • lol! Banned all goods from China? This country would have nothing on the shelves and China knows it.

  5. I wonder if Jacqui Lambie’s secret deal involving national security is to go harder at the Chinese influence and misbehaviour in Australia. They could never announce that to the public as it would cause a diplomatic stir … but we know that is one of her major pain points she supports.

    • At least Lambie has some military training unlike the IIC (Idiot In Charge) Scott Morrison.

      Have you read Scott Morrisons Wiki Page? It suggest he was involved in potential corrupt behavior (after the Gillard witch hunt I’m surprised Labor hasn’t gone hard with this one)

      Here’s the guts of it
      “although a 2019 investigation by the Saturday Paper[21] suggested Morrison was sacked for breaching procurement guidelines and awarding government contracts worth $184 million to advertising and media companies without value-for-money assessments or board approval.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Morrison

  6. reusachtigeMEMBER

    I don’t think that wechat thing will ever take off down here because the Chinamen use funny writing

  7. ” foreign political interference through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WeChat.”

    Are we suppose to believe that US tech designed to do very that: interfere – is now interfering back?

    CCP shil/astroturfer!
    Yep, tnx, that must be me.
    Dissenting thought can only be categorised as astroturfing, isnt it, and the next thing is well, censorship to the next level (it is already here) as we cannot allow critical thinking astroturfers to astroturf
    Funny how one same thing can be astroturfing or plight for freedom of thought – as needed. Particularly here.