Made in China: Economic Influence Operations

Chinese state-controlled news outlets run overt Facebook and Twitter ads that target Americans on trade

(Source: Facebook)

A trade war between the United States and China is now in its eleventh month and has spilled into the American information ecosystem. @DFRLab discovered numerous advertisements run by Chinese state-funded news outlets that targeted American users on the issue of trade war and tariffs.

U.S. President Donald Trump imposed the first round of tariffs on Chinese imports in January 2018. Since then, both sides have engaged in a reciprocal exchange that led to an all-out trade war, heightening tensions between the two countries.

@DFRLab found that, in an attempt to communicate the Chinese Communist Party’s position, Chinese government-funded media outlets used paid advertising in English on Twitter and Facebook. The advertisements told American social media users that the tariffs are hurting the American economy and called on the United States to make some concessions.

This is not surprising, considering the Chinese Communist Party’s view of the media, best illustrated by President Xi Jinping’s meet and greet with Chinese media-funded news outlets in 2016 when Xi told representatives from the China Global Television Network (CGTN, formerly CCTV), People’s Daily, and Xinhua that “their actions must be highly consistent with the [Communist Party]”.

Of note, the content was unrelated to influence operations directed at recent elections in the United States, which has been the subject of a number of comments made by senior U.S. officials — including Vice President Mike Pence — with little evidence or context offered.

CGTN

In the spirit of Xi’s call to action, CGTN, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department, ran a Facebook advertisement between September 6 and 9 that targeted American Facebook users.

An advertisement published by CGTN, archived on Facebook. (Source: Facebook)

The advertisement featured a talking animated red car “produced in the United States,” which explained how much harder it had become for it to reach China, the largest car market in the world. It elaborated that the reason was the newly imposed 40 percent tariff on all American-made cars. It went on to say that “it [the red animated car] does not want to lose the momentum of entering the Chinese car market” and that it “feels kind of blue” for losing its market share to its European competitors.

The advertisement was active for less than three days before Facebook removed it, citing the absence of a “paid for by” label, which is required for advertisements related to politics and issues of national importance.

China Daily

Like CGTN, China Daily, an English-language media outlet controlled by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, also published advertisements related to the issue of tariffs and the United States-China trade war.

It is worth noting that China Daily is a FARA-registered agent in the United States. FARA refers to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which obliges foreign principals, including state-funded media outlets, to register as such. FARA was created in 1938 to expose foreign propaganda in the United States during World War II. It ensures:

“The U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws.”

Between October 5 and 12, China Daily published four advertisements on the topic of the trade war, which garnered over 2,500 engagements.

The first advertisement was an excerpt from China Daily’s Twitter thread, under #Opinion. China Daily, however, did not promote the remaining six parts of the thread and instead amplified only the fourth part of a seven-part thread.

A tweet promoted by the China Daily Twitter account. (Source: Twitter)

The tweet, not linking to any article on the news site, used emotive language, portraying U.S. producers, exporters, and consumers as victims who are “bound to bleed in a trade war.” The advertisement was clearly meant to warn the U.S. audience of the consequences of the Trump Administration’s actions.

Another promoted tweet linked to an interview with China’s Ambassador to the United States, accompanied with a quote that read:

“We are ready to make a deal. We are ready to make some compromise, but it needs the goodwill from both sides.”
A tweet promoted by the China Daily Twitter account. (Source: Twitter)

In the full interview, the Ambassador went on to say that there was no goodwill on the U.S. side, and stated, “There’s been some attempt on the U.S. side to force something like, the U.S. will get 100 percent and China will get zero. I don’t think this is fair. I don’t think this is possible.”

Global Times

Global Times, which is owned by the People’s Daily , the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party , also published an advertisement on the subject of tariffs at the beginning of October 2018 and was the only advertisement it published that month.

The advertisement was a video in which the Editor-in-Chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, explained China’s position on the ongoing trade war.

A tweet promoted by the Global Times Twitter account. (Source: Twitter)

He said, among other things, that: “Chinese are having a bit of difficulty of understanding the U.S. at the moment,” “China doesn’t want an all-out confrontation with the U.S.,” “China will also not surrender to U.S. pressure,” and “we are willing to pay any price to maintain our independence on the road to development.” His statements made it clear that he was talking on behalf of the Chinese government, which controls the media outlet.

Hu also commented on a recent speech made by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in which he strongly criticized China. Hu said he got “the feeling that this Vice President is quite confused.”

The video appeared to advocate a particular type of diplomatic engagement, rather than provide news commentary, and as such can only be classified as an overt influence campaign to nudge the United States into making concessions that would benefit China.

Conclusion

Chinese state-controlled news agencies is designed to communicate the Communist Party’s position and are doing so using paid-for advertisements on Facebook and Twitter. Neither tactic is covert, outright surprising, or illegal given each outlet’s FARA registration.

However, while not illegal, the behavior was not journalism. The primary purpose of these advertisements was to amplify the narrative that the trade war is hurting the United States more than China, that the United States needs to make concessions to put an end to it, and that benefited the Communist Party of China. This type of advocacy goes against the basic principles of journalism ethics, the tenets of which are impartiality and independence.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at @DFRLab.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.