The numbers are truly impressive. According to the findings of Statista.com, the most trusted statistics portal on the web, China now has nearly 1 billion users present on social networks, or about 65 percent of the total population, with a trend that is set to grow year by year. It is important to point out right away that the big ones such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have nothing to do with this growth. In fact, the Chinese government has long blocked access in the country to Western social networks, making only local ones like WeChat and Sina Weibo possible, which attract millions of users, making China the largest social media market in the world. According to the findings of the , on average, each Internet user in China has about 7.4 social media accounts.
The most popular platforms
There are really a lot of Chinese social platforms. WeChat is by far the most popular social app in the country, used for everything from texting, making phone calls, sharing photos and videos, to online shopping and gaming, as well as news. However, the landscape is quite diverse and dynamic. There is the instant messaging app Tencent QQ, the microblogging site Sina Weibo, the video sharing app Youku Tudou, the photo editing and sharing app Meitu, and the restaurant recommendation and food ordering platform Meituan. Among all these socials, the video sharing app Douyin, of which there is an international version now used by all Western teenagers, has had a huge international impact. We are talking about Tik Tok.
Social networks and the Chinese government: a study unveils a major censorship effort by the regime
Perhaps it seems trite to write this, but it is appropriate to at least reiterate it. Social networks in China are not free at all, nor are Chinese users. Behind the billions of daily interactions between messages, phone calls, and online searches, there is a strong political censorship undertaken by the government, to counter possible collective actions considered to be subversive. To achieve this goal, the Chinese government conducts continuous and methodical monitoring of the flow of all information and interaction that citizens engage in on social media.
Three scholars, Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, published a few years ago in the American Political Science Review a study revealing the existence of a secret task force of government agents, belonging to the so-called 50c Party (so called because of the income the employees receive), who would be tasked with diverting public attention from topics that are hot for the government and likely to activate forms of associationism from below. In the most classic Orwellian narrative, the work of these government agents, would consist of creating content on social media with posts, with the specific goal of distracting the public from issues inconvenient to the government and promoting national unity and the political stability of the regime through continuous positive publicity of the actions of the Party leadership.
But what exactly do these posts consist of? The researchers divided the content into five categories:
– “taunting of foreign countries”: posts with favorable comparisons between China and other foreign, usually Western, countries;
– “non-argumentative praise and criticism”: posts with praise on non-controversial issues, such as debates on public debt or welfare;
– “argumentative praise and criticism“: posts with praise on controversial issues such as certain positions on human rights;
– “factual reporting”: posts with descriptions of government programs, initiatives, events or leadership plans;
– “cheederleading”: expressions of patriotism, slogans, discussions about cultural figures or celebrations. Most of the work of the 50c Party task force would seem to be focused on disseminating this content.
Just to give some numbers and give a good understanding of the magnitude and importance of this massive censorship and mass distraction effort, the above study points to the existence of as many as 448 million posts on Chinese social channels. About 53 percent of these appeared on government sites and the remaining 212 million on commercial sites.
The communication strategy on Western social networks
In addition to this colossal and invasive domestic political censorship effort, China is also reportedly using refined communication “pollution” strategies on Western social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to convey disinformation and reinforce pro-regime political propaganda.
A more recent study by researchers at Oxford University, for example, documented the existence of nearly 30,000 Twitter accounts that amplified and celebrated posts by the Chinese government or pro-government media in recent years before being suspended from the platform for violating rules prohibiting manipulation. The same is true of YouTube, with Google deleting nearly 10,000 channels for engaging in “coordinated, China-related influence operations.” According to an investigation by The New York Times, the Chinese government deliberately “flooded” Western social platforms with fake profiles, supposedly belong to convinced and fervent supporters of the regime, for the purpose of formally cleaning up its image, compromised by international suspicions of human rights violations.
In addition to this heavy use of fake profiles, manipulation tactics also include seeking out Chinese-speaking social media influencers with high international followings, with the task of praising China as a form of international accreditation, for providing, for example, aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, while amplifying criticism of the European Union for not doing the same.
In short, various studies tell us of the existence in recent years of a truly refined project, not only of censorship, but also of altering and manipulating domestic and international public opinion, particularly on Western social networks, by agents of the Chinese government. The work is not only to conceal unseemly issues and nip in the bud any protest initiative, but also to provide disinformation and fake news campaigns to clean up the government’s image. History will tell us how effective or ineffective these propaganda strategies will have been, and how strong the dreams of men will be in breaking down walls and crossing the borders of freedom with light wings. Even on the web.