Chinese news sites have huge Facebook followings. Why?

A recent Economist article reported on the dramatic growth in the Facebook followings of state-run Chinese news websites. CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily and Xinhua all have significantly more followers than BBC News, CNN, and the New York Times. This seems surprising, as Facebook is, of course, banned in China.

For The Economist, it is nothing less than “fishy”. It suggests that the Chinese state must be using nefarious tactics — perhaps masses of “eager, bogus followers” — to “hoodwink” Facebook’s algorithm.

I would like to offer a more prosaic explanation: Chinese News Sites have simply been spending heavily on Facebook Ads.

The Facebook Ad Library shows that CGTN has been running simple ads with a call-to-action to like their Facebook page for some time. The same ads run in multiple countries (I checked UK, USA, India, Kenya, Brazil, Croatia, & Zimbabwe). They are in English, and do not appear to to be tailored based on local context.

China Daily, People’s Daily, and Xinhua use the same tactics, but with more of a “clickbait” approach. Here’s an example. (Nothing says “soft power” like a video of a cockatoo eating shrimp).

By contrast, BBC News has run no Facebook ads since the Facebook Ad Library was created. CNN runs Facebook ads, but only to promote product purchases from its shopping guide, CNN Underscored (here’s one advertising bedding). The New York Times runs Facebook ads, primarily to promote subscriptions. Unlike the Chinese news sites, neither CNN nor the New York Times use the “Like Page” call-to-action.

The Economist also analyses the geographic distribution of Chinese news sites’ Facebook followers, drawing attention to its higher level of penetration in the Global South, and suggesting it might reflect the expansion strategy of Chinese news bureaus.

I would hypothesize, however, that it is simply an outcome of the auction mechanism Facebook uses to sell ad inventory. Typically, the poorer a country is, the less competition there is among advertisers for the inventory, and hence the lower the price. So if (say) CGTN is bidding a flat $ amount regardless of country, their ads will show much more often in poorer countries.

In summary, I don’t think there is any evidence to support The Economist’s claims about Chinese news sites using nefarious tactics to game Facebook’s algorithm. Rather, they seem to be putting capital to work on Facebook ads in a straightforward way that Western news sites are not. One also shouldn’t assume that such activity is effective. Facebook marketers have long regarded page likes / followers as a “vanity metric”, since only a small proportion of a page’s followers ever see organic content that it posts but does not pay to promote.

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