Washington, March 30 – Speaking to her 1.4 million social media followers, Vica Li says she is a “life blogger” and “food lover” who wants to teach her fans about China so they can travel the country easily .
“Through my lens, I will take you through China, taking you into Vica’s life!” she says in a January video posted to YouTube and Facebook.
But that lens may be controlled by CGTN, the state-run Chinese television network on which she has appeared regularly on shows and is listed as a digital reporter on the company’s website.
While Vica Li tells her followers that she “created all of these channels herself,” her Facebook account reveals that at least nine people manage her page.
That portfolio of accounts is just a tentacle of China’s growing influence on US-owned social media platforms, an Associated Press investigation has found.
As China continues to assert its economic power, it is using the global social media ecosystem to expand its already impressive influence.
The country has built a network of social media personalities who parrot the government’s perspective in posts, acting in virtual lockstep while promoting China, deflecting criticism of its human rights abuses, and pushing Beijing’s talking points on world affairs like Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Some of China’s pro-state reporters have positioned themselves as trending Instagram influencers or bloggers. The country has also hired firms to recruit influencers to deliver carefully crafted messages that enhance its image for social media users.
And it benefits from a cadre of Westerners who have dedicated YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to repeating pro-Chinese narratives on everything from Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims to Olympian Eileen Gu, an American who competed at the recent Winter Games competed for China.
The influencer network allows Beijing to offer propaganda to social media users around the world. At least 200 influencers with ties to the Chinese government or its state media operate in 38 different languages, according to research by Miburo, a firm that tracks foreign disinformation operations.
“You can see them trying to infiltrate each of these countries,” said Miburo President Clint Watts, a former FBI agent. “If you bombard an audience with the same narratives long enough, over time people will tend to believe them.”
Russia’s war with Ukraine is just one example.
While the invasion was condemned as a brazen attack on democracy, Li Jingjing presented her 21,000 YouTube subscribers with a different narrative by posting videos that mirrored Russian propaganda and promoted misleading claims – including that the US and NATO were invading Russia would have provoked.
On YouTube, Li Jingjing says she is a “traveler,” “storyteller,” and “journalist.” But she doesn’t reveal in her segments that she is a reporter for CGTN and articulates views that are not only her own but also familiar talking points for the Chinese government. Neither Vica Li nor Li Jingjing responded to AP’s questions.
The AP identified dozens of similar accounts that collectively have more than 10 million followers and subscribers.
The profiles are often owned by reporters from Chinese state media, who have revamped their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube accounts — platforms largely blocked in China — and started posing as “bloggers,” “influencers,” or nondescript “journalists.” to identify.
“They clearly realized that the Chinese influencer is the way to go,” Watts said of China.
Foreign governments have long attempted to exploit social media to covertly influence users, including during the 2016 US election.
In response, tech companies like Facebook and Twitter pledged to make American users more aware of foreign propaganda by flagging state-sponsored media accounts.
However, the AP review found that most Chinese influencers’ social media accounts are inconsistently labeled as state-funded media. The accounts, like those of Li Jingjing and Vica Li, are often featured on Facebook or Instagram, but not on YouTube or TikTok. Vica Li’s account is untagged on Twitter. Last month, Twitter began identifying Li Jingjing’s account as a Chinese state media outlet.
CGTN did not respond to interview requests. CGTN America, which is registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department and has disclosed commercial arrangements with international news organizations such as AP, CNN and Reuters, has not returned any messages. An attorney who represented CGTN America also did not respond.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said, “Chinese media and journalists carry out normal activities independently and should not be assumed to be directed or influenced by the Chinese government.”
China’s interest in social media influencers was evident in December when filings filed with the Justice Department revealed that the Chinese consulate in New York had paid New Jersey-based Vippi Media $300,000 to recruit influencers to act during the Olympics Games in Beijing should post messages to Instagram and TikTok followers.
Vipp Jaswal, CEO of Vippi Media, declined to share details about the posts with AP.
English-speaking influencers have also carved a niche for themselves by promoting pro-Chinese messages on YouTube and Twitter.
Last April, CGTN invited English speakers from around the world to enter a month-long competition that would end with social media influencer jobs in London, Nairobi, Kenya or Washington.
British video blogger Jason Lightfoot raved about the opportunity in a YouTube video and has garnered 200,000 subscribers with headlines like “The Olympics backfired in the US – disastrous regret” and “Western Media Lies about China.”
The video themes are in sync with those of other pro-China bloggers such as Cyrus Janssen, a US citizen in Canada. During the Olympics on the same day, Janssen and Lightfoot shared identical images of Gu in posts celebrating her triple medal win and blowing up the USA.
Janssen told AP he has never accepted any money from the Chinese government. But when he pressed for details about some of his partnerships with Chinese tech firms, Janssen only responded with questions about an AP reporter’s salary.
YouTubers Matthew Tye, who is American, and Winston Sterzel, who is from South Africa, believe that in many cases China is paying for content.
They were included in an email pitch to numerous YouTube influencers last year by a company identifying itself as Hong Kong Pear Technology.
The email asked them to share a promotional video for China’s tourist province of Hainan on their channels. Pear Technology followed up with another email, urging it to release a propaganda video claiming COVID-19 originated in North American white-tailed deer, not China.
Sterzel and Tye heard no further after asking the company to produce evidence to support that claim.
“There is a very simple formula to be successful,” said Sterzel in an interview. “It’s just praising the Chinese government, praising China and talking about how great China is and how bad the West is.” (AP)