China is allegedly using fake local news sites to push propaganda in other countries

Semafor Signals

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Insights from consultant Hernán Alberro, Yale University, and The Wire China

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A new report suggests that China is attempting to shape global narratives by spreading pro-Beijing messages on hundreds of fraudulent news sites across 30 countries.

A Beijing-based public relations firm has created more than 100 websites that are posing as local news outlets across 30 countries to spread pro-China talking points, according to a new report by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto.

The operation extends across Europe, North America, and South America, with homepages curating a mix of both local news updates and commentary on topics like anti-U.S. conspiracy theories and editorials responding to China’s critics. The websites so far have had “negligible exposure,” Citizen Lab noted, but they risk getting inadvertently amplified, especially as more people begin turning to artificial intelligence chatbots to learn about the world.

Beijing’s international propaganda efforts have only intensified in recent years and have become a growing concern for the U.S. and its allies, especially as other countries — particularly in the Global South — begin to view Beijing as a more reliable development and security partner.


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Report confirms experts’ worries about China’s evolving propaganda model

Source:  International relations consultant Hernán Alberro

Global media analysts had long assumed China was launching a new network of fake news sites to launder its influence, but this report is the first study to reaffirm their suspicions, international relations consultant Hernán Alberro told Semafor. The majority of the fraudulent sites were concentrated in Latin America and Europe — not North America — which Alberro said is likely a reflection of the strength of the region’s media ecosystem, as well as China’s desire to target more vulnerable locations. In Latin America specifically, “there’s very little information” about who actually owns news publishers and controls media companies, which ultimately means “it’s easier and cheaper” to operate obscure news outlets there, Alberro said. This is reinforced by Beijing’s success in gaining support from Latin America’s political elite and academics.

Beijing’s propaganda is effective at selling the ‘China model’

Source:  Yale University’s Daniel Mattingly et. al

Chinese media is particularly effective at convincing outsiders that its autocratic model is an effective form of governance, according to a working paper by Yale University researchers. Initially, roughly 3 out of 4 of more than 6,000 respondents from 19 countries in the study generally favored the “American model” of strong civil liberties and entrepreneurship. But after exposure to Chinese media, there was a three fold increase in respondents who said they now believed the “China model” of competent leadership, responsive institutions, and political stability was superior to the American model. Chinese propaganda did not ultimately persuade respondents to perceive China’s system as democratic, the researchers said, but the study suggests that global audiences — particularly in Latin America and Africa — “place considerable weight on competent government performance.”

Without provocative messaging, it’s hard for China to reach audiences

Sources:  The Wire China, Center for International Governance Innovation, The China Project

Chinese journalism — both domestic and foreign — is generally more “constructive,” and reporting “[focuses] on solutions rather than problems,” Maria Rapnikova, a scholar on global communication, told The Wire China in 2021. “That’s not very exciting for the audiences,” she said, pointing to research demonstrating that Russian outlets like RT are more widely consumed in the Global South compared to Chinese media, because their approach is “on pushing the message that other countries are failing or misinforming their citizens.” But more recent research suggests that China is changing its propaganda approach to push more critical coverage of Western countries. Outlets in developing countries are also turning to Chinese news wires like Xinhua — which is cheaper than the Associated Press and Reuters — allowing Beijing to “both [undermine] independent media as well as [promote] pro-Beijing coverage,” Chinese media expert Joshua Kurlantzick told The China Project.

China’s deepfake efforts are a particular concern for lawmakers

Sources:  Fox News Digital, Graphika, The Canadian Press, CBC

Some U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns that China’s growing artificial intelligence capabilities could have an influence on he 2024 presidential election. A 2023 report by the social media analytics firm Graphika found that Beijing has already begun experimenting with AI-generated news clips on social media, which promote the interests of the Chinese Community Party. While the videos so far have been low-quality and not widely viewed, the commercial availability of AI software will allow “actors to create increasingly high-quality deceptive content at greater scale and speed,” the report said.

Canada has already been the victim of a massive “spamaflouge” attack — a situation in which a swarm of fraudulent social media accounts posted massive amounts of propaganda. In October, the social media accounts of prominent politicians like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were flooded with comments questioning their policies and ethics, as well as deepfake videos of a prominent Canadian critic of the Chinese Communist Party, who was shown criticizing Trudeau and others. This propaganda barrage was likely an attempt to get Canadian politicians to “distance themselves from the critic,” the report theorized, citing the country’s foreign ministry.