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Hundreds of state media adverts are running on Facebook. Photo: AP

How China is spending big to push its official message through Facebook and Twitter

  • Beijing’s propaganda drive is facing increased scrutiny after recent crackdown by social media giants
  • Accounts show that China’s internet regulator agreed a contract worth almost US$1m with People’s Daily while hundreds of state media ads are running on Facebook

China is spending large sums on targeted efforts by state media to spread its message through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

For example, the latest contract between the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet regulator, and the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily shows a one-year arrangement to operate and promote content about China on Facebook for 5.8 million yuan (US$820,000 million), according to a government notice published on Monday evening.

Under the agreement, which came into effect last Friday, People’s Daily will be responsible for daily content on its Facebook account.

It stipulates that stories and videos must “adhere to positive propaganda,” while offering “varied perspectives to tell China’s story, to deliver China’s voice and promote overseas audiences’ approval and support for China” and President Xi Jinping’s signature ideology for the “new era”.

The disclosure follows growing scrutiny over Chinese state activities on social media, after Facebook and Twitter on Monday identified and suspended state-linked accounts that were part of a coordinated effort to promote the official line about the continuing protests in Hong Kong.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has entered its 11th week, triggered by a now-suspended extradition bill, and has been repeatedly attacked on state media.

Twitter separately announced on Monday that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media entities “to protect healthy discourse and open conversation”.

While Facebook did not follow suit, the company said on Wednesday that it would “continue to look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media”.

“We’re also taking a closer look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our polices,” a company representative said, without elaborating.

Both Twitter and Facebook are banned in mainland China.

Mainland Chinese backlash over ‘political decision’ by Twitter, Facebook amid US-China tensions

The Chinese government in recent years has increasingly stressed the need for its state outlets to “tell China’s stories well to the world” – meaning they must carefully toe the party line and adhere to strict government censorship.

Victor Shih, a professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, said Twitter’s ban on state media advertising was noteworthy at a time when corporations were “going along with very high-handed and coercive pressure from the Chinese government”.

“All of this is a very important lesson for the Chinese government as they increasingly drive US businesses and all foreign businesses out of Greater China.

“These businesses like Facebook and Twitter, which are banned in China, really have no incentives to bow to the pressure of Beijing,” he said.

On Facebook, information from its public Ad Library shows various Chinese state media organs were running at least 900 sponsored content ads as of Wednesday afternoon, including official pages for People’s Daily, state news agency Xinhua, the nationalist tabloid Global Times, the English-language newspaper China Daily and state broadcaster CCTV.

On Monday Twitter announced a ban on adverts from state media. Photo: AP

The English-language arm of CCTV, China Global TV Network (CGTN), had more than 100 active ads on Wednesday, including a video about the Hong Kong protests that said: “Some ill-intentioned protesters are willing to take the city, millions of people, and a prosperous economy hostage. But now we will no longer tolerate any violent misconducts and separatist forces.”

Other paid content included a video from the overseas edition of People’s Daily slamming violence from Hong Kong protesters and a sponsored clip from Global Times that sought to justify mass internment camps in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million Uygurs and other Muslim minorities are being held for indoctrination.

State media has been vocal in criticising the Hong Kong protest movement. Photo: Bloomberg

These adverts vary in effectiveness, reach and cost.

Facebook analytics show a video from CGTN that ran between August 13 and 17 showing an Australian passenger arguing with Hong Kong protesters over their sit-in at the city’s airport reached users between 200,000 to 500,000 times and cost less than US$100.

A Global Times post in mid-March criticising India’s push to blacklist a Pakistan-based terrorist at the United Nations garnered over 1 million impressions and cost between US$500 and US$999.

Critics say Beijing’s overseas propaganda efforts often fall flat, in part because of people’s scepticism about state media narratives and the outlets’ inability to understand how to appeal to foreign audiences.

Some analysts have stopped short of calling for an outright ban on state propaganda but argue that its output, particularly the paid-for adverts, needs greater scrutiny.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the latest developments showed the need to distinguish between legitimate public diplomacy – including Chinese government agencies and state media – and suspected state-led misinformation.

“The best disinfectant is transparency; the best deterrent is a willingness to expose and condemn such efforts,” he said.

Twitter, Facebook move on Chinese accounts ‘part of much larger conversation on disinformation’

“While China’s propaganda and misinformation campaigns have been quite successful within China – largely because of the state’s monopoly of the information environment, outside of China – especially in contested information environments, these efforts have largely been ineffective.”

China is likely to seek more sophisticated ways to influence the public in future as part of its larger aim of trying to trying to “tell its story better and trying to perpetuate its government narratives”, Ni said.

State-owned news agency China News Service last week awarded a 1.24 million yuan (US$176,000) tender to service provider OneSight (Beijing) Technology, which touts its experience in overseas social media, to grow its Twitter following by at least 580,000 by February.

A tender notice on the CAC website showed that China News Service specifically requested more followers from North America, Australia and New Zealand, as it sought to expand its influence abroad.

The English portal for China News Service had over 590,000 Twitter followers on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Simone McCarthy

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China targets users of Facebook with paid propaganda