The duplicity of the Chinese Communist Party’s Facebook policy
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is emerging as the master of social media irony. At home, the CCP bans its citizens from Facebook to block outside influences. Abroad, the CCP champions Facebook to spread its propaganda to developing countries. Both practices, domestic and foreign, seem to be helping the authoritarian regime control the narrative about the party outside China.
While Chinese citizens may legally only use Facebook competitors such as WeChat or Weibo, which the CCP tightly monitors, the CCP runs the top four media outlets worldwide with the greatest followings on Facebook, according to an April 2019 analysis by The Economist magazine. CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily and Xinhua, which are all news outlets operated by the Chinese government, are the top news sites globally on Facebook, as ranked by the number of followers. Only one media outlet that is not Chinese-run makes the top five — the BBC, with the fifth largest Facebook following. China also runs Global Times, which comes in sixth, the magazine reported.
To block Facebook in China, the CCP employs an extensive web-filtering system, known as the “Great Firewall of China.” The system also blocks Twitter, YouTube, human rights sites and various other sites. The PRC also employs more than 2 million cyber police to censor “sensitive” material, according to various news reports.
Roughly 3 million people in China, however, still gain access to Facebook through circumvention tools, experts estimate, which is fewer than 0.2% of the population. The Chinese government-controlled WeChat, which started out as Tencent’s instant messaging app and has evolved into an ecosystem of its own, is the leading social media platform in China. It had amassed more than a billion active monthly users worldwide through March 2018, according to TechNode, a China-based organization providing news on China’s technology. More than 900 million users are inside China, experts estimate.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government reaches nearly 300 million people worldwide via Facebook. The state-run CGTN, the CCP’s top site, has attracted 77 million followers, according to The Economist. In many developing countries throughout Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, up to 30 percent of their Facebook users follow at least one Chinese-run news site, according to the magazine. At least 8% of all African Facebook users, for example, follow CCP-run news pages.
In 2018, CCP-run news pages drew 370 million likes, shares or comments on Facebook. That’s more than nine times the 40 million annual engagements that Russian trolls yielded during the U.S. election, as the Oxford Internet Institute reported.
Apparently, the Chinese Facebook numbers have been growing almost too fast. The improbable growth rate led Facebook to suspect foul play and start investigating. In March 2019, Facebook sued four Chinese companies for selling fake Facebook and Instagram accounts, likes and followers, according to court filings.
The companies offer assorted services, including bundles of phony accounts for Facebook and Instagram and other platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, LinkedIn and Google Voice, the complaint said. They also advertise services “designed to increase likes, comments, friends, and other activity,” TechCrunch, a U.S. online publication covering technology, reported. They also use false marketing materials, The Verge, a technology news website, reported.
Facebook and Instagram disabled 2.1 billion fake accounts between January and September 2018, the complaint said, but that may be just the beginning. “By filing the lawsuit, we hope to reinforce that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated — and that we’ll act forcefully to protect the integrity of our platform,” Facebook said in its statement.
In August 2019, Facebook and Twitter said that “accounts that originated in China acted in a coordinated fashion to amplify messages and images that portrayed Hong Kong’s protesters as violent and extreme,” The New York Times newspaper reported.
For example, a Facebook post from a PRC-linked account equated the protesters with ISIS fighters.
Twitter deleted 936 accounts and Facebook deleted seven pages, three Facebook groups and five accounts involved in the PRC’s disinformation campaign against Hong Kong protesters.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said in a statement. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
The CCP’s play for influence over foreign populations online doesn’t stop with propaganda and disinformation on social media sites. A recent report by Valentin Weber, a research fellow for the Open Technology Fund, found that Chinese censorship and surveillance technologies were exported to over 100 countries, proliferating and normalizing the CCP’s vision for a tightly government-controlled internet.
Yet the CCP has also targeted other platforms. Reddit, a U.S. social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion website, for example, is having similar problems with Chinese trolls, according to a March 2019 report by BuzzFeed News, a U.S. news website. Reddit has 330 million users across more than 215 countries.
Chinese government-sponsored users are spreading propaganda and suppressing anti-CCP messages on Reddit. Moderators and users are seeing an “increase in posts from newly created accounts that downvote anything critical of China, swarm threads to push pro-Communist Party views, or attack anyone criticizing the country. Threads about sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square, Huawei, or Falun Gong, the religious group classified by the Chinese government as a cult, are quickly seized up by pro-China accounts,” according to the BuzzFeed News website.
The increase in pro-China accounts is “the most active and aggressive” effort to date. “The pro-CCP effort vastly overshadows any operation by the Russians,” a Reddit moderator told BuzzFeed.
The CCP’s activities are more extensive than downvoting negative threads about China, the moderator said. “Comments and articles pushing a pro-CCP narrative or praising Xi Jinping’s ventures, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, are upvoted by either a coordinated effort or bots.
“Ironically, our freedom of press and an open internet is being exploited by an adversary to subvert democracy.”