To her 1.4 million followers on social media, Vica Li tells them that she is a “life blogger”, “food lover”who wants to report on China for people to travel safely to their country.
“Through my lens I will walk you through China and I will make you part of Vica’s life!”, says in a video released in January through Youtube and Facebook.
That lens, however, could be controlled by CGTN, the state television network on which she frequently appears and appears as a journalist for the digital branch on the company’s website. Vica says that she created “all these channels by myself”but his Facebook account makes it clear that at least nine people run his pages.
His account represents just one of the tenacles of a machinery through which China increases its influence on social networks. United States and other countries, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.
China, with its growing economic might, is using the social media ecosystem to amplify its already formidable influence. It has created a network of personalities who spread the government’s perspective, deflect criticism of the human rights situation in China and repeat Beijing’s positions on issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Some journalists from the Chinese state orbit present themselves as influencers on Instagram or as bloggers. The country has also hired firms that recruit influencers to deliver carefully crafted messages that promote their image to social media users.
And Beijing benefits from a number of people in the West who spread the Chinese vision through Youtube and Twitterfrom her explanation of the treatment of the Uyghurs to that of athlete Eileen Gu, an American who competed for China in the recent Winter Olympics.
The network of influencers that Beijing exploits around the world includes at least 200 people with connections to the Chinese government or state media, who speak 38 languages, according to research by the Miburo firm, which studies disinformation operations.
“You can see that they try to infiltrate all these countries”said Miburo president Clint Watts, a former FBI agent. “If you bombard an audience with the same story for a period of time, people end up believing” what they tell you.
Russia’s war with Ukraine is an example. While the invasion was widely condemned as an affront to democracy, Li Jingjin offers a very different view to his 21,000 YouTube subscribers, with videos reproducing Russian propaganda and promoting false claims, including that the invasion was provoked. by the United States and NATO.
On YouTube, Li Jingjing says she is a “traveler”, “writer” and “journalist”. At no time does he reveal that he is a CGTN journalist, who promotes points of view that are not his and coincide with those of the government. Neither Vica Li nor Li Jingjing responded to questions from the AP.
The AP identified dozens of similar accounts, which together have more than 10 million followers and subscribers. They are usually from Chinese state-run media journalists who transformed their accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube — platforms blocked in China — and started identifying themselves as bloggers, influencers and journalists.
“Clearly they decided that the way forward is to pose as ‘influential Chinese ladies’”Watts said. Many governments have tried for years to exploit social networks for political purposes, as happened in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States.
In response, companies like Facebook and Twitter have promised to better alert their users when they spot government propaganda. But the AP found that doesn’t always happen. Li Jingjing and Vica Li’s accounts, for example, are often labeled as propaganda on Facebook and Instagram, but not on YouTube or TikTok.
Vica Li’s account is not tagged on Twitter. Last month, Twitter began identifying Li Jingjing’s account as state media.
CGTN did not respond to requests for interviews. The US branch of CGTN (CGTN America), which is registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department and says it has business dealings with organizations including the AP, CNN and Reuters, did not respond to messages. Neither did an attorney who has represented CGTN America.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said that “Chinese media and journalists carry out normal activities independently and should not be assumed to respond to or suffer interference from the Chinese government”.
China’s interest in social media influencers became apparent in December, when documents filed with the Justice Department revealed that the Chinese consulate in New York had paid $300,000 to New Jersey firm Vippi Media to recruit willing influencers. to post messages on Instagram and Tiktok during the Beijing Olympics. Vipp Jaswal, CEO of Vippi Media, declined to speak to the AP about his posts.
English-speaking influencers have also made a name for themselves by promoting pro-Chinese views on YouTube and Twitter.
In April of last year, CGTN invited English speakers from around the world to participate in a competition to select influencers in London, Nairobi and or Washington.
British vlogger Jason Lightfoot hailed the opportunity in a YouTube video, reaching 200,000 subscribers with headlines like “The Olympics went badly for the United States. Sorry with the disaster” or “Western press lies about China”.
The topics of the videos coincide with those of other pro-Chinese bloggers like Cyros Janssen, an American living in Canada. During the Olympics, Janssen and Lightfoot released identical images of Gu celebrating winning three medals and bad-mouthing the United States.
Janssen told the AP that he never received any money from the Chinese government. Asked about his relationships with Chinese technology companies, Janssen responded by asking an AP reporter how much he earned.