China has reinvented itself as a Social media influencer.
Vica Li describes herself as a “life blogger” and “food lover” who wants to teach her 1.4 million TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook followers about China so that they may tour the country with ease.
“I’ll take you across China, through my vision, into Vica’s life!” She says in a video posted to her YouTube and Facebook pages in January, where she also gives Chinese classes via Zoom.
However, that lens could be controlled by CGTN, the Chinese state-run television network, where she has often appeared in broadcasts and is listed on the company’s website as a digital reporter. While Vica Li claims that she developed all of these channels on her own, her Facebook page shows that it is managed by at least nine people.
According to an Associated Press investigation, that portfolio of identities is only one tentacle of China’s fast-rising influence on US-owned social media sites.
China is exploiting the global social media ecosystem to enhance its already massive influence as it seeks to establish its economic dominance. In posts seen by hundreds and thousands of people, China has quietly built a network of social media personalities who promote China’s virtues, deflect international criticism of its human rights abuses, and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs such as Russia’s war against Ukraine, all while operating in virtual lockstep.
Some state-affiliated reporters in China have reinvented themselves as Instagram influencers or bloggers. The country has also recruited organizations to find influencers to offer precisely designed messages to social media users that would improve its image. It is also aided by a group of Westerners who have dedicated YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to reiterating pro-China narratives on topics ranging from the treatment of Bejing.
It is also aided by a group of Westerners who have dedicated YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds to reiterating pro-China narratives on topics ranging from Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims to Olympian Eileen Gu, an American who competed for China in the most recent Winter Games.
Thanks to the influencer network, Beijing can effortlessly transmit misinformation to unknowing Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube users all over the world. According to Miburo, a service that tracks foreign disinformation efforts, at least 200 influencers with ties to the Chinese government or official media are active in 38 different languages.
Miburo President Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, stated, “You can see how they’re trying to infiltrate every one of these countries.” “In the end, it’s all about the loudness. If you bombard an audience with the same storylines for long enough, they will eventually believe them.”
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine was widely condemned as a brazen assault on democracy, Li Jingjing, a self-described “traveler,” “storyteller,” and “journalist,” took to YouTube to provide another viewpoint.
She blasted American journalists covering the battle in a video titled “Ukraine crisis: The West ignores wars & destructions it brings to the Middle East.” Other films she’s made have focused on boosting Russian propaganda about the conflict, such as accusations of the Ukrainian genocide or that the United States and NATO precipitated Russia’s involvement.
In her YouTube bio, Li Jingjing says she’s excited to show her almost 21,000 viewers, “the world through my lens.” While the Russian invasion of Ukraine was widely condemned as a brazen assault on democracy, Li Jingjing, a self-described “traveler,” “storyteller,” and “journalist,” took to YouTube to provide another viewpoint.
Most Chinese influencers use similar pitches to Li Jingjing’s in the hopes of attracting audiences from all over the world, including the United States, Egypt, and Kenya. The celebrities, many of whom are women, refer to themselves as “travelers,” and they share photographs and videos that market China as a dream vacation spot.
Watts said of China, “They have recognized the ‘Chinese lady influencer’ as the way to go.”
The Associated Press found dozens of these accounts, with a combined following of more than 10 million people. Many of the accounts belong to Chinese state media reporters who have recently modified their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube accounts – all of which are largely prohibited in China – and started identifying as “bloggers,” “influencers,” or vague “journalists.” Almost all of them were running Facebook ads encouraging people to like and follow their pages, which were targeted outside China.
The celebrities have mainly phased out references in their posts to their employers, including CGTN, China Radio International, and Xinhua News Agency. They do not proactively identify their ties to China’s government.
Foreign governments have long attempted to influence users through social media and its advertising system. For example, a Russian internet organization paid in rubles to run over 3,000 divisive political ads targeting Americans during the 2016 US election.
As a result, platforms of Social Media such as Twitter have promised to better warn American consumers of foreign propaganda by designating state-sponsored media accounts.
However, the AP discovered that most Chinese influencer social media profiles are inconsistently designated as state-funded media in its investigation. The accounts, such as Li Jingjing’s and Vica Li’s, are frequently identified on Facebook and Instagram but not on YouTube or TikTok. Vica Li’s Twitter account isn’t labelled. Last month, Twitter began labelling Li Jingjing’s account as the Chinese state media.
Vica Li remarked in a YouTube video that the labels on her Facebook and Instagram pages are inaccurate. She didn’t react to a long list of questions from the Associated Press.
Followers who are drawn in by accounts that feature stunning photographs of China’s scenery may not realize they are also exposed to state-sponsored propaganda.
During the Beijing Olympics, Jessica Zang’s stunning Instagram photos show her laughing beneath a bright sun, kicking fresh, powered snow atop a ski slope in China’s Xinjiang area. She defines herself as a film artist and blogger who aspires to provide “beautiful photos and videos about life in China” to her viewers.
Zang, a CGTN video blogger, rarely reveals her employer to her 1.3 million Facebook fans. Her account is categorized as “state-controlled media” on Facebook and Instagram but not on TikTok, YouTube, or Twitter, where Zang promotes herself as a “social media influencer.”
“I think it is likely by the decision that she doesn’t have any state affiliations on her account because once you put that label on your account, people start asking certain types of questions”, said Rui Zhong of the Wilson Center in Washington, who studies technology and the China-US relationship.
Posts with more blatant propaganda are strewn among the tourism photos. In one film headlined “What foreigners in BEIJING think of the CPC and their lives in China?” Zang interviews foreigners in China who gush about the Chinese Communist Party and assert that they are not being watched by the government as outsiders may believe.
“We want to let more people know what China is like,” Zang says to the audience.
This is a fundamental goal for China, which has undertaken a coordinated campaign to build its image overseas. Its president, Xi Jinping, has spoken publicly about his wish for China to be viewed positively in the international arena.
According to Jessica Brandt, a Brookings Institution expert on foreign involvement and deception, narratives like Zang’s are ultimately intended to mask worldwide criticisms of China.
“They aim to present a positive image of China to obscure their human rights violations,” Brandt explained.
The AP reached out to Li Jingjing and Zang for comment, but they did not respond. CGTN did not reply to multiple requests for interviews. CGTN America, which has declared business partnerships with numerous international news organizations, including the AP, CNN, and Reuters, and is registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, did not respond to messages. A lawyer who has represented CGTN America has also failed to react.
“Chinese media and journalists carry out routine operations independently, and should not be presumed to be led or interfered with, by the Chinese government,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
The Chinese Consulate in New York paid $300,000 to New Jersey’s Vippi Media to recruit Instagram influencers and TikTok followers during the Beijing Olympics, including content that highlights China’s work on climate change.
It’s unknown what the public thought of the campaign or whether the Chinese Consulate correctly labelled the social media posts as paid advertisements, as Instagram and TikTok require. Even though federal law requires it, Vippi Media has not produced a copy of the posts it paid influencers to disseminate to the Justice Department, which governs foreign influence efforts under a 1938 statute known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Vipp Jaswal, the CEO of Vippi Media, declined to comment on the posts with the Associated Press.
In other situations, the funding and motivations behind these Facebook postings, YouTube videos, and podcasts are so opaque that even the creators claim they had no idea the Chinese government was funding them.
According to the Associated Press, Chicago radio DJ John St. Augustine was approached to host a podcast called “The Bridge” with a crew in Beijing by a buddy who owns New World Radio in Falls Church, Virginia. The hosts talked about everyday life and music in the United States and China and invited music business professionals as guests.
He claims he was unaware that CGTN had paid $389,000 to New World Radio to produce the podcast. According to documents filed on behalf of the radio corporation with the Justice Department, the station was also paid millions of dollars to air CGTN content 12 hours a day.
“I have no idea how they accomplished it,” St. Augustine added. “A corporation in the United States compensated me.”
According to Patricia Lane, co-owner of New World Radio, the station’s connection with CGTN ended in December.
The Justice Department has sought public opinion on how the FARA Act should be updated to account for the ephemeral nature of social media and its transparency problems.
FARA unit chief Jennifer Kennedy Gellie said in the message, “It’s not pamphlets and hard copy newspapers anymore.” It’s all about “tweets, Facebook postings, and Instagram photos.”
By pushing pro-Chinese messaging in YouTube videos or tweets, a growing chorus of English-speaking influencers has developed an online niche.
Last April, as part of its effort to grow its network of influencers, CGTN asked English speakers to participate in a month-long competition that would culminate in jobs as social media influencers in London, Nairobi, Kenya, or Washington, D.C. Thousands of individuals applied, according to CGTN, which called the event a “portal for young people all around the world to comprehend China.”
In a YouTube video promoting the event, British video blogger, Jason Lightfoot, gushed over the opportunity.
“CGTN has given me so many crazy experiences that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Lightfoot said in a video he claimed was shot on the campus of Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Lightfoot, who did not respond to demands for comment, does not identify his affiliation with CGTN on his social media account, where he has amassed millions of views with videos like “The Olympics Backfired on the USA – Disastrous Regret” and “Western Media Lies about China.”
The video topics frequently overlap with those of other pro-China bloggers, such as US citizen Cyrus Janssen, who lives in Canada. Janssen and Lightfoot both shared videos hailing Gu’s three-medal wins during the Olympics, using identical photographs of the Olympian in posts blasting the United States.
“Eileen Gu wins gold for the USA’s boycott failure!” On February 10th, Lightfoot made a post. Janssen also posted a video on the same day titled “Is Eileen Gu, a traitor to the United States of America? An American expat tells it.
Janssen told the Associated Press that his videos were meant to educate people about China and that he has never taken money from the Chinese government. When asked about some of his connections, which include Chinese tech firms, Janssen only reacted with queries regarding the compensation of an Associated Press reporter. The Associated Press discovered tapes of him appearing on CGTN broadcasts.
Western influencers frequently criticize what they perceive to be skewed American media portrayal of Beijing and its people. Some remarks, for example, mocked Western fears about the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who vanished after alleging sexual assault against a former high-ranking member of China’s ruling Communist Party. She emerged in a controlled interview around the Olympics, vehemently denying any wrongdoing by Chinese officials and claiming that her initial charges had caused an “enormous misunderstanding.”
In the West, his uncivilized face has aroused skepticism; something YouTuber Andy Boreham parodied in a video where he used language similar to the Me Too movement. “I’m curious about #BelieveAllWomen,” he remarked.
Boreham is a columnist for Shanghai Daily and a New Zealander. His account was recently branded as the Chinese state-affiliated media on Twitter. His YouTube channel is still unnamed. YouTube noted in a statement that state-affiliated media classifications are only applied to companies, not to individuals who work for or with state-funded media.
Lightfoot, who has over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, delighted at video footage of what he described as “clean, modern, calm, nice” streets in China in a YouTube post, last year. The movie then turned into a scene of filthy, trash-strewn streets in Philadelphia, which he claimed to be his hometown.
Honestly, I assumed it was from a movie when I first saw this video,” he said in his narration. I assumed it was a scene from a zombie film or an end-of-the-world film. However, this is not the case. It is the United States of America.”
YouTubers Matthew Tye, from the United States, and Winston Sterzel, from South Africa, claim that China is often paying for videos that were made.
What evidence do they have?
Last year, a firm calling itself Hong Kong Pear Technology included the two in an email pitch to several YouTube stars. The influencers were invited to share a promotional video for China’s Hainan province, a popular tourism destination, on their social media platforms.
Tye and Sterzel, who lived in China for several years and became outspoken critics of the regime, believe they included by mistake on the pitch.
But, intrigued, they exchanged emails with the company while pretending to be interested in the offer. The firm representative quickly followed up with a fresh request: they post a propaganda movie claiming COVID-19 originated in North American white-tailed deer rather than China, where the first case was discovered.
According to emails obtained by the AP, an employee named Joey said, “We could provide $2000 (absolutely negotiable considering the nature of this type of information) lemme me if u are interested.”
The emails ended after Tye and Sterzel requested articles to back up the fraudulent claim.
A Pear Technology employee reported contacting Tye and Sterzel in an email to the AP but said he didn’t know anything about the client, adding, “it might be from the government??”
The transaction, according to Tye and Sterzel, demonstrates how China promotes propaganda through influencers who profit from it.
“There’s a fairly easy recipe to become successful,” Sterzel said in an interview. “It’s basically to laud the Chinese leadership, to praise China, and to gloat about how incredible China is and how terrible the West is,” the author claims.
Edited by Prakriti Arora