Chinese State Media’s Global Influencer Operation: Why It Matters
Part 2/2: CCP-aligned social media influencers might be China’s best propaganda tactic yet
In part one of this two-part series, we presented a taxonomy of over 200 Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-aligned social media influencers who create and distribute propaganda in at least 38 languages. We placed them into three broad categories based on key characteristics including type of content they publish (lifestyle vs. hard news), target audience (international vs. domestic), and their connection to Chinese State Media (CSM). We know CSM leadership is eager to advance influencer-driven CCP messaging, but is their enthusiasm for this tactic justified? We think it is. This piece delves into the reasons why influencers are poised to become key instruments in the CCP’s propaganda toolbox.
The CCP has employed numerous overt and covert propaganda tactics online over many years, with varying degrees of success. On the overt side, embassies, public officials, and official spokespersons have long acted as mouthpieces for CCP messaging. Official CSM outlets like Xinhua and Chinese Radio International (CRI) have served the same function, producing content in many languages and devoting significant resources to advertising on social media. CSM has also attempted to broaden its reach by partnering with foreign media outlets which republish CSM content to local audiences.
Covert activities attributed to, or aligned with, the CCP include several influence operations targeting audiences outside China. Spamouflage, a prolific actor deploying inauthentic social media accounts since 2019, has spread disinformation about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the origins of COVID-19, ongoing human rights abuses in China’s northwest Xinjiang province, and controversial dissident Guo Wengui. Other botnets and inauthentic accounts often amplify CSM content and other CCP figureheads. Additional covert attempts at manipulation include a petition circulated by CSM outlet Global Times that called for the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the U.S. military biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which was also promoted inauthentically.
While both overt and covert propaganda tactics have long been used by China, Beijing has increasingly turned to something between the two to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事), and take ownership of the international discussion about China. Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), vice minister of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, stated in August 2021 that “eye-catching, exciting, and irresistible ‘invisible propaganda’” should be spread. He said that this should be accomplished, at least in part, through the use of “multilingual internet celebrity studios” able to “vividly tell the story of the CCP.”
The CCP has experimented with a variety of creative tactics to distribute messaging and shape public opinion, but this new influencer-focused strategy has potential to be the most effective. Research on how information spreads and sticks tells us that audiences are more likely to believe a piece of information when:
It is heard or seen first,
It is repeated multiple times,
It is delivered by a trusted source, and
It faces no rebuttal.
While other methods of CCP propaganda described above accomplish one or two of these criteria, these methods are often lacking when it comes to delivering messaging via a trusted source that won’t be met by a rebuttal. By contrast, influencers tick all four of these boxes. In addition to helping CSM spread CCP-aligned messages immediately and through multiple channels, influencers are able to build trust and reduce the likelihood that audiences will seek out or encounter a rebuttal.
First & Frequently
Evidence shows that when presented with contradicting messages, audiences are more likely to believe the message they were exposed to first. Moreover, they are likely to believe information that they have heard several times (and from multiple messengers or sources). Influencers can do both of those things.
The sheer size of this network helps ensure that CCP propaganda reaches a wide audience via multiple entry points. Each of the 200-plus influencers we have identified averages around 309K followers, bringing the combined follower count across all influencers to a whopping 66M. While some percentage of these followers is believed to be inflated through inauthentic means, there is also evidence that influencers are reaching genuine audiences through targeted Facebook advertisements and appearances in local media outlets (Figure 1).
In order to reach audiences quickly—and first—influencers reduce barriers that might impede communication with their followers. Their language capabilities play a crucial role in this, giving them a competitive advantage over less linguistically capable messengers. They communicate directly with audiences across geographies without the need for a translator or intermediary. Using social media to deliver messaging (as opposed to traditional forms of media) further cuts out any potential middlemen, allowing influencers to reach their followers instantly.
To expose audiences repeatedly to the same message, influencers take advantage of both social media and traditional media. Social media news feeds allow audiences to experience influencer content on an ongoing basis. This content often consists of the same handful of messages repeated multiple times but in slightly different forms. For example, an influencer who is keen on convincing her followers that there are no human rights abuses in Xinjiang might address the topic by visiting a Xinjiang cotton farm one day, and then a week later introducing her audience to a happy Uyghur family in Xinjiang. This type of re-packaged messaging further ensures audiences will be exposed repeatedly to the same narratives.
As we mentioned in part one, influencer messaging often overlaps thematically with international CSM reporting. This further increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter the same message from seemingly different sources. Foreign media outlets are also used to spread CCP-aligned messaging: In addition to their regular social media content, some influencers appear in foreign news outlets as commentators or authors. This not only increases the number of potential sources from which an audience may encounter the same CCP messaging, but also broadens influencers’ visibility among target audiences, granting them greater legitimacy and credibility.
Finally, language capabilities matter here too: some languages are spoken by multiple influencers (the two most popular languages among influencers are English and Arabic, spoken by 60 and 22 different influencers, respectively). This means that, in theory, a single person could follow multiple CCP-aligned influencers, which would result in them hearing a very similar message from several seemingly different sources. In fact, influencers encourage this by urging their fans to follow other CCP-aligned influencers and featuring one another on their social media pages (Figure 3).
When audiences perceive an information source as trustworthy (whether the source is a friend or an expert), they are more likely to believe the information. Influencers establish themselves as credible messengers in two ways: by presenting themselves as trusted friends and by presenting themselves as unbiased experts.
Influencers cultivate feelings of friendship among their followers by engaging in friend-like behaviors. They interact frequently with their followers, making it seem like they’re genuinely interested in friendly exchange. Influencers (especially honeypots) can get very personal: One Arabic-language influencer shared her battle with cancer and later live-streamed her wedding (Figures 4 and 5). This behavior creates a sense of intimacy, causing audiences to view influencers as honest and open, much as a friend or family member would be. Moreover, many of the honeypot influencers have an additional advantage of being attractive young women, making them more likely to be viewed as approachable and trustworthy.
Influencers’ ability to speak the target audience’s language and demonstrate knowledge (and enthusiastic appreciation) of their culture allow influencers to build a familiarity with target audiences. Peer influencers have the added advantage of sharing their target audience’s nationality. This means that peer influencers are more likely to look like their target audience—a quality that is particularly beneficial given that audiences are more likely to trust people who resemble them. Moreover, peer influencers have more leeway when criticizing their home culture or pointing out its hypocrisy in relation to China, allowing them to voice such criticisms without creating defensiveness among their audiences
Beyond their efforts to build a sense of friendship with their audiences, influencers cultivate trust in their message by presenting themselves as unbiased experts on the topics they address. Their staggering follower counts imbue influencers with a sense of authority among target audiences, making them appear popular and trusted. Moreover, by hiding their connections to CSM, influencers appear more trustworthy than overt CSM or CCP messengers because their views are seen as independent of any financial or ideological motivations. Here, too, peer influencers have an additional advantage, because they could be presumed to lack any inherent nationalistic loyalties that Chinese influencers might have.
At the same time, the fact that influencers are based in China and visit (or even live in) the places they seek to show to their audience lends them credibility and expertise that make their messages more convincing. Influencers often remind their viewers of this, arguing that their on-the-ground perspective renders their reporting on China more accurate than remote Western media reports (Figure 6).
Influencers also develop authority by demonstrating that they have access to people and places unavailable to outsiders. For example, some influencers interview Chinese public figures, and take their viewers on tours of Chinese schools, factories, and farms that would normally be closed to the public.
Once audiences encounter a piece of information, they are less likely to believe it if they also see a rebuttal of that information. To minimize this, influencers work toward decreasing the likelihood that others will question or refute their claims and, if a rebuttal has been made, reducing the probability that audiences will see that rebuttal.
One common way in which influencers avoid public rebuttals of their assertions is by narrowing the perspective of their claims to what they’re supposedly seeing with their own eyes. By presenting anecdotal evidence (e.g., focusing on individual Uyghurs who say they are happy under CCP rule, rather than making broad, explicit claims about China’s treatment of all minorities), they can encourage their audience to make broad inferences about a particular situation without actually making broad claims about it. For example, it is more difficult to argue that the happy-looking Uyghur family portrayed in an influencer’s video is unhappy than it is to argue against an influencer claiming that China does not persecute its Uyghur population. This is especially true for ethnic minority influencers—it is very difficult to argue with their own personal experience as minorities living in China.
To further reduce the likelihood of rebuttal, influencers rely heavily on the largely unmoderated social media ecosystem. Social media provides more than just speedy communication with audiences, it also reduces the likelihood for fact-checking middlemen to get in the way, as they might during the publishing process for newspapers or other traditional media. While some social media platforms make efforts to label and limit the reach of accounts controlled by Chinese state media, they offer no fact-checking or rebuttal mechanisms for the type of content put out by influencers and they do a poor job at labeling for non-English speaking audiences. Influencers’ tactic of presenting narrow claims (described previously) makes it less likely that their content will be flagged as political or misleading by social media safeguard mechanisms. Once an influencer publishes a post, the main form of rebuttal they face comes from the occasional skeptical commenter. To discourage this type of rebuttal, influencers, who normally interact with their audience, do not engage with comments that criticize or refute their message. Thus, they allow the social media algorithm to highlight those supportive comments that receive engagement while sidelining any negative comments which are left ignored by the influencer.
At the same time, some influencers take their messaging a step further by providing direct rebuttals to prominent Western narratives that are critical of China and/or the CCP, thus making those Western narratives less likely to be believed (Figure 7).
Influencers have a number of traits that make them effective CCP propaganda tools. They ensure that their content reaches the intended audience quickly and repeatedly by taking advantage of their ever growing numbers and broad language capabilities. They build trust by creating a false sense of intimacy and presenting themselves as on-the-ground sources of accurate information about China. Lastly, they discourage any rebuttals to their messaging by narrowing the scope of their claims and by not engaging with detractors on social media. New influencers are emerging almost daily, and they will continue to act as friendly, inconspicuous messengers delivering “invisible propaganda” in support of the CCP.
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Credible source, heard repeatedly (illusory truth effect), no rebuttal: DiFonzo, Nicholas & Prashant Bordia (2007). Rumor psychology: Social and organizational approaches. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11503-000 (Chapter 4, pp. 89-111).