China Spreads Propaganda to U.S. on Facebook, a Platform It Bans at Home


A propaganda video produced by Xinhua, China’s state news agency, and targeted to English-speaking audiences was published on Facebook. The platform is banned in China but used by the government to promote its policies overseas.

HONG KONG — China does not allow its people to gain access to Facebook, a powerful tool for disseminating information and influencing opinion.

As if to demonstrate the platform’s effectiveness, outside its borders China uses it to spread state-produced propaganda around the world, including the United States. So much do China’s government and companies value Facebook that the country is Facebook’s biggest advertising market in Asia, even as it is the only major country in the region that blocks the social network.

A look at the Facebook pages of China Central Television, the leading state-owned broadcast network better known as CCTV, and Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reveals hundreds of English-language posts intended for an English-speaking audience.


Xinhua has more than 31 million followers on Facebook.

Each quarter, China’s government, through its state media agencies, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy Facebook ads, according to a person with knowledge of those deals, who was unauthorized to talk publicly about the company’s revenue streams.

China’s propaganda efforts are in the spotlight with President Trump visiting the country and American lawmakers investigating foreign powers’ use of technology to sway voters in the United States.

Last week, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were grilled in Washington about Russia’s use of American social media platforms to influence the 2016 presidential election.


Though banned, foreign social media companies are trying to promote themselves in China. Many Chinese businesses, and the government, use Facebook to reach an international audience. CreditNg Han Guan/Associated Press

During Facebook’s time in the congressional hot seat last week, Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked whether China had also run ads to affect the United States election. Facebook’s general counsel replied that to his knowledge it had not.

There is no indication that China meddled in the American election, but the Communist government’s use of Facebook is ironic given its apparent fear of the platform. It also hasn’t been reluctant to use it as a soapbox where China’s relationship with the United States is concerned.

China has been a major priority for Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder, has spent years courting it. Facebook executives even set up a page to show CCTV, one of Beijing’s chief propaganda outlets, how to use the platform during President Xi Jinping’s 2015 trip to the United States.

While China’s propaganda channels on Facebook are not nearly as subtle as Russian groups when it comes to influencing opinion, their techniques are nonetheless instructive.

Rather than divisive advertisements, many of the Chinese Facebook posts replicate the sort of news propaganda delivered at home: articles stressing China’s stability and prosperity mixed with posts highlighting chaos and violence in the rest of the world.

A similar blend of stories — pandas and idyllic Chinese landscapes next to heavy coverage of the mass shooting in Texas — has proliferated across China’s official Facebook channels in the lead-up to Mr. Trump’s visit to Beijing, which began on Wednesday.

While much of it is unlikely to sway the average American’s mind, such posts reach people across the world, many of whom are newer to the internet and may have a less sophisticated understanding of media. China’s state media has Facebook channels dedicated to Africa and other regions of the world, and it seems evident that it is offering itself as an alternative to the Western media for a more global audience.


CCTV, China’s leading television broadcaster, spreads propaganda overseas as well as at home.CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Recently, for example, Xinhua posted an article titled “China’s IP protection system works well, says U.S. professional” — a rebuke of a congressional investigation into Chinese trade policies that critics say encourage intellectual property theft.

A more anodyne post offered a ham-handed attempt to find common ground between China and the United States, pointing to the basketball player Yao Ming, pandas and American students making dumplings as examples of the countries’ close relationship.

A video posted by Xinhua, which already has about 100,000 views, presents a series of man-on-the-street interviews with Chinese people talking about the United States. It begins on a positive note, with questions about Mr. Trump and what they like about the United States.

About halfway through the video, however, the tone changes and people are asked to describe the problems they see with the United States.

At that point, the interviewees get critical. “U.S.A. interferes with others’ lives arrogantly,” one woman says. “Every person and nation has its own culture and customs, no need to interfere.”

Another woman addresses America directly: “Don’t be so self-important and arrogant.”

Even children are asked about the relationship between the United States and China. “Sometimes they went too far in bullying others,” one says of the Americans. “They don’t respect China and use South Korea to spy on China,” says another. “They also sent weapons to South Korea.”

When asked what advice he would give Mr. Trump, one man says: “Let him learn from China.”

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