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How China's TikTok, Facebook influencers push propaganda

How China's TikTok, Facebook influencers push propaganda

WASHINGTON (AP) — To her 1.4 million followers across TikTok, YouTube, Instagram with every one other accompanied by Facebook, Vica Li says she is a "life blogger" with every one other accompanied by "food lover" who wants to teach her fans concerning China so they tin journey the country accompanied by ease.

"Through my lens, I will lay clasp of you around China, lay clasp of you into Vica's life!" she says inside a video posted inside January to her YouTube with every one other accompanied by Facebook accounts, where she too teaches Chinese classes over Zoom.

But that lens may exist controlled by CGTN, the Chinese-state sprint TV web where she has regularly appeared inside broadcasts with every one other accompanied by is listed while a digital reporter on the company's website. And while Vica Li tells her followers that she "created all of these channels on her own," her Facebook description shows that at least nine people manage her page.

That portfolio of accounts is fair one tentacle of China's fast growing effect on U.S.-owned communal media platforms, an Associated Press scrutiny has found.

As China continues to assert its monetary might, it is using the worldwide communal media ecosystem to expand its by that hour dated formidable influence. The country has silently built a web of communal media personalities who parrot the government's perspective inside posts seen by hundreds of thousands of people, operating inside virtual lockstep while they go forward China's virtues, deflect international censure of its anthropoid rights abuses with every one other accompanied by go forward Beijing's talking points on world affairs exist fond of Russia's war opposed to Ukraine.

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Some of China's state-affiliated reporters have posited themselves while trendy Instagram influencers or bloggers. The country has too hired firms to enlist influencers to deliver carefully crafted messages that boost its likeness to communal media users.

And it is benefitting from a cadre of Westerners who have loyal YouTube channels with every one other accompanied by Twitter feeds to echoing pro-China narratives on each item from Beijing's behaviour towards of Uyghur Muslims to Olympian Eileen Gu, an American who competed for China inside the most recent Winter Games.

The influencer web allows Beijing to easily proffer propaganda to unsuspecting Instagram, Facebook, TikTok with every one other accompanied by YouTube users around the globe. At least 200 influencers accompanied by connections to the Chinese management or its condition media are operating inside 38 different languages, according to research from Miburo, a firm that tracks overseas disinformation operations.

"You tin see how they're trying to infiltrate every one one of these countries," said Miburo President Clint Watts, a former FBI agent. "It is fair concerning volume, ultimately. If you fair bombard an audience for lengthy sufficient accompanied by the same narratives people will tend to exist convinced by them over time."


While Russia's war on Ukraine was actuality in general condemned while a brazen assault on democracy, self-described "traveler," "story-teller" with every one other accompanied by "journalist" Li Jingjing took to YouTube to provide a different narrative.

She posted a video to her description called "Ukraine crisis: The West ignores wars & destructions it brings to Middle East," inside which she mocked U.S. journalists covering the war. She's too dedicated other videos to amplifying Russian propaganda concerning the conflict, including claims of Ukrainian genocide or that the U.S. with every one other accompanied by NATO provoked Russia's invasion.

Li Jingjing says inside her YouTube side view that she is eager to show her violently 21,000 subscribers "the world into and not here of my lens." But what she does not speak inside her segments on Ukraine, which have tens of thousands of views, is that she is a reporter for CGTN, articulating views that are not fair her own nevertheless too familiar Chinese management talking points.

Most of China's influencers use pitches similar to Li Jingjing's inside hopes of attracting audiences around the world, including the U.S., Egypt with every one other accompanied by Kenya. The personalities, numerous of them women, call themselves "travelers," sharing photos with every one other accompanied by videos that go forward China while an idyllic destination.

"They clearly have identified the 'Chinese lady influencer' is the way to go," Watts said of China.

The AP identified dozens of these accounts, which collectively have amassed additional than 10 million followers with every one other accompanied by subscribers. Many of the profiles belong to Chinese condition media reporters who have inside recent months transformed their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter with every one other accompanied by YouTube accounts — platforms that are mostly blocked inside China — with every one other accompanied by begun identifying while "bloggers," "influencers" or non-descript "journalists." Nearly all of them were running Facebook ads, targeted to users external outside of China, that encourage people to go nearer behind their pages.

The personalities do not proactively disclose their ties to China's management with every one other accompanied by have mostly phased not here references inside their posts to their employers, which include CGTN, China Radio International with every one other accompanied by Xinhua News Agency.

Foreign governments have lengthy tried to exploit communal media, while well while its ad system, to effect users. During the 2016 U.S. election, for example, a Russian internet agency paid inside rubles to sprint additional than 3,000 divisive political ads targeting Americans.

In response, tech companies exist fond of Facebook with every one other accompanied by Twitter promised to better alert American users to overseas propaganda by labeling state-backed media accounts.

But the AP found inside its analysis that most of the Chinese influencer communal media accounts are inconsistently labeled while state-funded media. The accounts — exist fond of those belonging to Li Jingjing with every one other accompanied by Vica Li — are regularly labeled on Facebook or Instagram, nevertheless are not flagged on YouTube or TikTok. Vica Li's description is not labeled on Twitter. Last month, Twitter began identifying Li Jingjing's description while Chinese state-media.

Vica Li said inside a YouTube video that she is disputing the labels on her Facebook with every one other accompanied by Instagram accounts. She did not respond to a comprehensive list of questions from the AP.

Often, followers who are lured inside by accounts featuring scenic images of China's scenery strength not exist aware that they'll too encounter state-endorsed propaganda.

Jessica Zang's picturesque Instagram photos show her smiling beneath a beaming sun, kicking fresh powered snowflakes atop a ski tourist centre on the Altai Mountains inside China's Xinjiang neighbourhood throughout the Beijing Olympics. She describes herself while a video creator with every one other accompanied by blogger who hopes to inside attendance her followers accompanied by "beautiful pics with every one other accompanied by videos concerning existence inside China."

Zang, a video blogger for CGTN, rarely mentions her employer to her 1.3 million followers on Facebook. Facebook with every one other accompanied by Instagram identify her description while "state-controlled media" nevertheless she is not labeled while such on TikTok, YouTube or on Twitter, where Zang lists herself while a "social media influencer."

"I believe it's probable by selection that she doesn't place some condition affiliations, since you place that label on your account, people start asking sure types of questions," Rui Zhong, who researches technology with every one other accompanied by the China-U.S. connection for the Washington-based Wilson Center, said of Zang.

Peppered in the centre of tourism photos are posts accompanied by additional clear propaganda. One video titled "What foreigners inside BEIJING believe of the CPC with every one other accompanied by their existence inside China?" features Zang interviewing foreigners inside China who gush concerning the Chinese Communist Party with every one other accompanied by insist they're not surveilled by the management the way outsiders strength think.

"We really want to permit additional people ... know what China is really like," Zang tells viewers.

That's an important goal inside China, which has launched coordinated efforts to form its likeness overseas with every one other accompanied by whose president, Xi Jinping, has spoken publicly of his wish to have China perceived favorably on the worldwide stage.

Ultimately, accounts exist fond of Zang's are intended to obscure worldwide criticisms of China, said Jessica Brandt, a Brookings Institution expert on overseas interference with every one other accompanied by disinformation.

"They want to go forward a positive eyesight of China to drown not here their anthropoid rights records," Brandt said.

Li Jingjing with every one other accompanied by Zang did not return messages from the AP seeking comment. CGTN did not respond to repeated meeting requests. CGTN America, which is registered while a overseas agent accompanied by the Justice Department with every one other accompanied by has disclosed having commercial arrangements accompanied by some international report organizations, including the AP, CNN with every one other accompanied by Reuters, did not return messages. A legal practitioner who has represented CGTN America did not respond either.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy inside Washington, Liu Pengyu, said inside a statement, "Chinese media with every one other accompanied by journalists convey not here normal activities independently, with every one other accompanied by should not exist assumed to exist led or interfered by the Chinese government."

China's attentiveness inside the influencer realm became additional evident inside December following it was revealed that the Chinese Consulate inside New York had paid $300,000 for New Jersey firm Vippi Media to enlist influencers to pole messages to Instagram with every one other accompanied by TikTok followers throughout the Beijing Olympics, including contented that would high point China's labour on climate change.

It's unclear what the condition saw from that campaign, with every one other accompanied by if the communal media posts were properly labeled while paid advertisements by the Chinese Consulate, while Instagram with every one other accompanied by TikTok require. Vippi Media has not provided the Justice Department, which regulates overseas effect campaigns into and not here of a 1938 statute known while the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a copy of the posts it paid influencers to disseminate, flat though confederate rules and regulations requires the firm to do so.

Vipp Jaswal, Vippi Media's CEO, declined to portion details concerning the posts accompanied by the AP.

In other cases, the money with every one other accompanied by motives behind these Facebook posts, YouTube videos with every one other accompanied by podcasts are so murky that flat those who create them speak they weren't aware the Chinese management was financing the project.

Chicago radio host John St. Augustine told the AP that a friend who owns New World Radio inside Falls Church, Virginia, invited him to host a podcast called "The Bridge" accompanied by a team inside Beijing. The hosts discussed done every one day existence with every one other accompanied by music inside the U.S. with every one other accompanied by China, inviting music manufacturing workers while guests.

He says he didn't know CGTN had paid New World Radio $389,000 to manufacture the podcast. The stopping place was too paid millions of dollars to transmit CGTN contented 12 hours daily, according to documents filed accompanied by the Justice Department on behalf of the radio company.

"How they did all that, I had no indeed clue," St. Augustine said. "I was paid by a firm here inside the United States."

The station's connection accompanied by CGTN ended inside December, said New World Radio co-owner Patricia Lane.

The Justice Department not long ago requested condition input on how it should update the FARA statute to description for the ephemeral world of communal media with every one other accompanied by its transparency challenges.

"It's not leaflets with every one other accompanied by firm copy newspapers anymore," FARA component leader Jennifer Kennedy Gellie said of messaging. It's "tweets with every one other accompanied by Facebook posts with every one other accompanied by Instagram images."


A growing chorus of English-speaking influencers has too cultivated an online niche by promoting pro-Chinese messaging inside YouTube videos or tweets.

Last April, while CGTN sought to expand its web of influencers, it invited English speakers to fasten a months-long competition that would extremity accompanied by jobs employed while communal media influencers inside London, Nairobi, Kenya or Washington. Thousands applied, CGTN said inside September, describing the event while a "window for young people around the world to comprehend China."

British video blogger Jason Lightfoot raved concerning the chance inside a video on YouTube advertising the event.

"So numerous insane experiences that I'll never fail to remember for the relax of my life, with every one other accompanied by that's all gratitude to CGTN," Lightfoot said inside a video he said was filmed from China tech firm Huawei's campus.

Lightfoot, who did not respond to requests for comment, does not disclose this connection accompanied by CGTN on his YouTube profile, where he has accrued millions of views accompanied by headlines exist fond of "The Olympics Backfired on USA — Disastrous Regret" with every one other accompanied by "Western Media Lies concerning China."

The video topics are regularly inside sync accompanied by those of other pro-China bloggers exist fond of Cyrus Janssen, a U.S. subject living inside Canada. During the Olympics, Janssen with every one other accompanied by Lightfoot both shared videos celebrating Gu's three-medal win, using identical images of the Olympian inside posts that blasted the U.S.

"USA's boycott lack of success ... Eileen Gu Wins Gold!" Lightfoot posted on Feb. 10. That same day, Janssen uploaded a video titled "Is Eileen Gu a Traitor to America? American Expat Shares the Truth."

In emails to the AP, Janssen said his videos are intended to educate people concerning China with every one other accompanied by said he's never accepted money from the Chinese government. But when pressed for details concerning some of his partnerships, which include Chinese tech firms, Janssen responded only accompanied by questions concerning an AP's reporter salary. The AP too found videos that show him appearing on CGTN broadcasts.

The Western influencers routinely decry what they see while distorted American media coverage of Beijing with every one other accompanied by existence there. Some posts, for instance, have ridiculed Western concerns over the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared from view following leveling reproductive assault allegations opposed to a former high-ranking subscriber of China's ruling Communist Party. She resurfaced around the Olympics inside a controlled meeting inside which she vigorously denied wrongdoing by Chinese officials with every one other accompanied by said her initial allegations had created an "enormous misunderstanding."

Her abrupt about-face prompted skeptical reactions inside the West, which YouTuber Andy Boreham mocked inside a video inside which he invoked language reminiscent of the MeToo movement. "I awe what happened to #BelieveAllWomen," he said.

Boreham is a New Zealander with every one other accompanied by columnist for Shanghai Daily. Twitter not long ago labeled his description while Chinese-state affiliated media. His YouTube description remains unlabeled. In a statement, YouTube said it only applies state-affiliated media labels to organizations, not individuals who labour for or accompanied by state-funded media.

In a YouTube pole last year, Lightfoot, who has additional than 200,000 subscribers, marveled at video footage of what he said were "clean, modern, peaceful, pleasant" streets of China. The pole at that hour dated gash to video of gritty, trash-strewn streets he said were inside Philadelphia.

"When I earliest saw this video," he says by way of narration, "I actually idea it was from a movie. I idea it was from a zombie movie or some sort of end-of-the-world movie. But it's not. This is real. This is America."

YouTubers Matthew Tye, an American, with every one other accompanied by Winston Sterzel, who is from South Africa, exist convinced by that, inside numerous cases, China's paying for videos to exist created.

Their evidence?

The set of two was included last year on an email pitch to numerous YouTube influencers from a firm that identified itself while Hong Kong Pear Technology. The email asked the influencers to portion a promotional video for China's Hainan province, a tourist beach destination, on their channels.

Tye with every one other accompanied by Sterzel, who spent years living inside China with every one other accompanied by became vocal critics of its government, assume they were inside all likelihood included on the pitch by mistake.

But, intrigued, they engaged inside a back-and-forth accompanied by the firm while feigning attentiveness inside the offer. The firm representative in a short time followed up accompanied by a new appeal — that they pole a propaganda video that claimed COVID-19 did not originate inside China, where the earliest instance was detected, nevertheless by preference from North American white-tailed deer.

"We could provide $2000 (totally negotiable considering the the natural world of this sort of content) lemme know if u are interested," an employee named Joey wrote, according to emails shared accompanied by the AP.

After Tye with every one other accompanied by Sterzel asked for articles that would spine up the incorrect claim, the emails stopped.

In an email to the AP, a Pear Technology employee confirmed he had contacted Tye with every one other accompanied by Sterzel, nevertheless said he did not know a a large amount of concerning the client, adding "it strength exist from the government??"

Tye with every one other accompanied by Sterzel speak the exchange pulls spine the window hanging on how China pushes propaganda into and not here of influencers who profit from it.

"There's a extremely uncomplicated formula to become successful," Sterzel said inside an interview. "It's simply to commend the Chinese government, to commend China with every one other accompanied by talk concerning how great China is with every one other accompanied by how bad the West is."


Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey.

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