Facebook, Google and Twitter face pressure to regulate state-funded media ops seeking to game the Internet. But which ones, and how?
By Nithin Coca
As the protests in Hong Kong grew and intensified over the summer, observers on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube began to notice a trend: Chinese state-run media outlets, such as China Central Television (CCTV) and Xinhua News, were blanketing platforms with promoted tweets, boosted posts and advertising content containing false or fictitious accusations against protesters, who since June 5 have been calling for the withdrawal of a controversial anti-extradition law, universal suffrage, and more.
It got so bad that on August 17, Maciej Cegłowski, a web developer, wrote a tweet thread highlighting the disparity between the messages on his Twitter feed and what he was seeing on the ground. His thread went viral, with journalists and protesters concurring that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were all filled with promoted content presenting a heavily distorted view of the protests.
“[Chinese entities] have been deeply engaged in online debates since the Hong Kong protests started, making arguments against Western media narratives, showcasing violent behavior of radicals within the protest movement, or employing straight-up personal attacks [and] doxing against journalists,” said Mike Zi Yang, a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Following Cegłowski’s tweets, something remarkable happened. The very next day, Twitter released a new policy, saying it would no longer accept advertising from state media outlets, following a 30-day grace period. Days later, YouTube announced it, too, would begin labeling state-funded media videos in a change of policy. In rapid order, Facebook announced that it had taken down a pro-China disinformation network, as did Twitter, the first instances of platforms directly tying disinformation to the Chinese state.
“There’s some significance to Twitter and Facebook designating Chinese disinformation, because they are confirming it’s happening,” said Josh Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s important that the major social media platforms call it out, and they should continue to call it out.”
These moves were welcomed by many, but they heralded greater challenges ahead. As Chinese state media influence grows around the world, what happened in Hong Kong may signal the beginning of a new era of great-power infowar, in which disinformation is no longer the realm of bots, troll armies and clunky propaganda, but appears in the form of slick saturation campaigns backed by well-funded state media outlets with millions in advertising spending.
“Freedom of information does not mean the freedom of any organization to broadcast any kind of content,” said Cédric Alviani, East Asia Bureau Director at Reporters Without Borders. “The major problem in the global information space is that it is full of disinformation content — hate speech, propaganda, and fake news — is so much that it is increasingly hard for legitimize news to exist.”
The Hong Kong protests have brought the issue to the forefront, but the Chinese-state media apparatus has been thinking globally for years. In 2009, a year after international protests against the selection of Beijing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics proved embarrassing for authorities, China announced a plan to spend 45 billion RMB (6 billion USD) over 10 years to improve China’s international image and disseminate its views. Today, China spends 10 billion RMB (1.3 billion USD) internationally, per year, on a broad range of information campaigns and media operations.
“China’s state media has the task of showcasing China in a positive light and countering narratives espoused by Western media outlets,” said Yang.
At the center of this project is the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), which has grown massively since 2009. It has around 10,000 employees in 70 bureaus, including production centers in London, Washington, D.C. and Nairobi, with broadcasts in at least 140 countries. Russia, meanwhile, has massively expanded the presence of state-run media conglomerates, with Rossiya Segodnya opening 29 bureaus since 2014, and outlets like Russia Today now operating in five languages. The expansion by Chinese, Russian, and other state-funded media is happening while many western outlets global footprints are shrinking. The Associated Press has seen its budget fall by $250 million since 2008, and has closed dozens of foreign bureaus. Papers including the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald have closed nearly all of their foreign bureaus. In much of Africa or Latin America, the scope of Chinese state media dwarfs that of western outlets.
As they create and grow their global media footprint, Chinese authorities are also tapping into foreign platforms to spread their content. Despite being blocked by the Great Firewall, both Google and Facebook have large advertising operations in China. Facebook counts the Chinese market as its second largest source of revenue, while Google takes in $3 billion a year from Chinese spenders. Even Twitter held a marketing event in Beijing just weeks before the Hong Kong protests erupted, seeking to tap into this lucrative market. It is unclear what percentage of Facebook or Google’s revenue comes from state media, but the number is likely growing.
Other regimes using advertising as a venue to spread disinformation include Saudi Arabia and Iran. Many believe that Russian disinformation efforts have been more effective than China’s, particularly in the west. But it may only be a matter of time before China learns and adapts, and puts it massive apparatus and spending capability to use.
“When they are detected, actors change their tactics, evolve, and get more sophisticated,” said Nick Monaco, research director at Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab and an expert on disinformation. “In the future, we can probably assume that Chinese propaganda campaigns online won’t be as loud or as simplistic as now.”
Then there is the difficulty of defining and categorizing state media. Outlets like CGTN, Xinhua, and Russia Today are state-supported, but so are Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Japan’s NHK. In the U.S., both Voice of America and National Public Radio receive state funds. To help determine its future policies and assess different state media networks, Twitter says it will use utilize reports from organizations including the non-profit Reporters Without Borders, the media organization Economist Intelligence Unit, UNESCO, and Freedom House (which has close ties to the U.S. Department of State). YouTube, meanwhile, has put all state-funded outlets under the same blanket definition, a move some observers see as creating a false equivalency between Chinese, Russian, and more editorially independent state-funded media outlets. But the alternative of letting Twitter decide between “good” and “bad” state media also presents problems.
“If Twitter were to ban only some state-controlled media from advertising, it would become an even harder decision, as Twitter employees would have to decide which state-controlled media are okay to ban or not,” said Kurlantzick. “A blanket move to ban ads from state-controlled media that are funded via taxpayer dollars is the right move, and it would be good for other major social media sites to copy this idea.”
While the evolving Chinese playbook in using technology and social media to spread disinformation is unique to this decade, the idea of state media spreading a particular message on behalf of governments is not. The U.S. started Voice of America (VOA) in 1942 and for decades during the Cold War its stated goal was to promote American foreign policy and counter Soviet propaganda. From certain perspectives, U.S. support for VOA, German support for DW or Japanese support for NHK does not look that different than what Russia or China is going with RT and CGTN.
That is partly why Reporters Without Borders sees something even more fundamental at issue: The model of journalism, and the avenues to reach audiences, are broken, and well-funded state media are just manipulating the breaks in the system to their benefit.
“The current problem is that the rules are being set by social media platforms, or by authoritarian powers like China or Russia,” said Alviani. This is the reason his organization launched the Journalism Trust Initiative, which aims to empower democracies and journalists themselves. “The idea is to create a type of industrial certification label, like organic food, for journalism. We hope that we can create tools that will allow us to fight against this invasion of state propaganda in the global information sphere.” (Disclosure: Pressland, which publishes News-to-Table, is in discussions with Reporters Without Borders to support the Journalism Trust Initiative as a technical partner.)
Meanwhile, governments have already initiated their own responses to the influence of foreign media, both state-funded and privately owned. China increasingly limits the access of all foreign journalists, especially when they seek to cover restive regions like Tibet or Xinjiang, while Russia has passed a law limiting foreign owned media outlets from operating in the country. The U.S. now requires Xinhua, CGTN and RT America to register as foreign agents, and restricts press access to some Chinese journalists from covering the Senate and House of Representatives.
Social media platforms are not the only place where Chinese and other state media outlets are advertising or spreading content. China Daily, a paid state media print insert that includes disinformation about the Hong Kong protests can now be found in dozens of newspapers around the world. Twitter’s move to restrict state media advertising means that the much-maligned social media outlet now has more strict guidelines for advertising than the Washington Post or New York Times.
“News outlets should reconsider paid inserts from state media outlets from any country, but especially from state media outlets where media in that country are not free, like Russia, China, and many others and where there is little reciprocity for foreign reporters,” said Kurlantzick.
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, Twitter’s state media ban has been welcomed by Cegłowski and others, but has not shifted the tactics of China’s state media. If anything, the battle of social media messaging has become even more extreme. In recent weeks, Chinese state media have released a video comparing the protesters to Nazis; claimed they are planning 9/11-style terrorist attacks; and made false accusations of foreign involvement.
Facebook, meanwhile, has not agreed to limit state media advertising, and YouTube remains full of Chinese state media disinformation.
Nithin Coca is a journalist based part-time in Northern California, Japan, and Indonesia, focusing on social and economic issues across Asia. Find him on Twitter at @excinit