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Opinion

China's propaganda on Weibo and WeChat misplaced on Twitter and Facebook

Beijing does not yet understand how to influence West's social media

Various levels of China's government agencies use money to deploy inauthentic accounts.   © Sipa/AP

Aiming to direct global perceptions about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, traces of Chinese propaganda aimed at Western audiences were detected on Facebook and Twitter. Viewed against the slick Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, the Chinese equivalents appear ineffective or even bizarre.

China resorted to armies of inauthentic accounts and brute-force attempts to frame the protests along the lines of national pride, sovereignty and anti-terrorism. Why did China behave this way?

The Chinese government's guidelines on foreign propaganda -- that is, "Tell China's story well" -- explains little. Neither does the argument that the Chinese government, which supposedly molds the Chinese web at will, was caught unawares when facing the "free" global web.

Instead, we need to consider China's efforts not by Western standards but in the context of how the government engages with its domestic social media giants, such as Weibo and WeChat -- and how it might move beyond that to become a subtler, more powerful force on Western social media.

Western commentary often exoticizes media environments under authoritarian rule. People in China, for example, are expected to crave Western news and popular culture, but are obstructed by a regulatory blockage such as the Great Firewall, or GFW, which bans access to select foreign websites.

What follows is the enduring presumption that access to Western content can transform Chinese people's political outlook. Reports in 2018 that Google would re-enter China with a censored search engine had rekindled such images. Bereft of access to Western media, the Chinese are assumed to fall for whatever the state disseminates.

The government's censorship of Chinese websites is presumed to have "brainwashing" effects from the top down.

What the West needs to consider is that, first, the Chinese web sustains a vibrant ecology with indigenous content that the Chinese create and enjoy. As despicable as state censorship is, Chinese people do not experience the GFW's blockage of foreign content and the government's regulation of domestic content as coercive.

The GFW certainly restricts some Chinese people from visiting foreign sites on its blacklist but, as our research shows, by and large the Chinese, just like people worldwide, gravitate toward websites and apps that appeal to their cultures. Even with an open internet, users in Britain and the U.S., despite having a lot in common, generally visit sites focused on their own countries.

Media coverage about "the Chinese internet" often compares it to "the rest of the web." But the rest of the world does not share a common web-browsing experience. Facebook, WhatsApp and Google, though very popular in many countries, do not have as much traction in others, such as Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Our analysis of global web traffic patterns revealed that Chinese-language websites which were focused on China make up the largest online culture. Yet it is less insular than many other such online cultures defined by language and geography. Chinese online content is jointly created and consumed by Chinese enterprise, citizens and diasporas. The government is but one of its shaping forces.

Chinese government censorship is frequently discussed as an attempt to influence online public discourse. Less noticed by the West is the government's endeavor to be an active player in the field, and this goes beyond having government employees disguised as ordinary web users spread positivity for the regime.

Various levels of government agencies use money to deploy inauthentic accounts, a commonplace strategy on the Chinese web to compete for attention. State-affiliated online media routinely weave opinions, sentiments, unverified anecdotes and fragments from disparate sources to produce stories.

But nonstate actors also embrace these practices to earn advertising revenue on the Chinese web. Such content, when spotted on College Daily, a super-popular channel for overseas Chinese students, has shocked many in the West.

Furthermore, the government's strategy for framing messages has gradually consolidated through observing the Chinese web. In a forthcoming paper, one of us maps the associations between words that people say about the state on Weibo, which is China's Twitter equivalent.

In 2011, when the government's "online public opinion guidance" project began, the state was largely discussed critically, with parts directly influenced by liberal democratic ideals. Just five years later, populist nationalism had displaced such critiques, suggesting the success of state propaganda measures.

Our key finding is that the state has not achieved everything it intended. For example, its promotion of its economic accomplishments has been less than effective. What has worked is to frame messages in ways that appeal to national pride and territorial sovereignty.

What has worked is to frame messages in ways that appeal to national pride and territorial sovereignty.   © Reuters

The discussion about China's seemingly out-of-place behavior on Twitter ignores this domestic story. China's techniques were developed through learning from experiments conducted in domestic conditions, including China's online ecosystem, prevalent practices of content creation and, crucially, its people with their own historical and cultural groundings.

When the West assumes that the Chinese web is a direct product of state censorship, it concludes that China is clueless when dealing with an online environment outside of its political coercion.

However, as we can see, China has acquired extensive experience and aptitude to actively indulge and incite, as well as block and censor. Its problem, rather, is that it has learned too much from the Chinese web, which has its own distinctive characteristics.

This Chinese model performed poorly in the online system of Western democracies. Twitter is not Weibo after all, and the West, especially in the "post-truth era," considers as disinformation tactics what the Chinese accept as online promotional strategies. But it may be only a matter of time before the Chinese model adapts to Twitter and Facebook.

Angela Xiao Wu is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Harsh Taneja is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Department of Advertising at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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