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From Uyghurs to COVID: How China has roped in vloggers and influencers to spread disinformation and propagate CCP agenda

Since official Chinese government mouthpiece get flagged by YouTube and Twitter as government channels, China has come up with an innovative way to spread propaganda

The People Republic of China seems to have taken notice of the growing criticism it receives from across the world over its human rights violations, especially against minorities. In a bid to tackle the criticism from the western press, the Communist Party of China has launched a propaganda overdrive to provide counter-narratives to what it calls ‘anti-China’ propaganda by the west.

In addition to the state-owned media outlets, the CPC and the Chinese government seems to have employed numerous ways to indulge in misinformation warfare across both traditional media and social media platforms. On platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, CGTN and Global Times are flagged as Chinese government funded broadcast channels. Hence, in a bid to make sure the propaganda appears organic and independent, China now seems to have roped in ‘influencers’.

According to the latest report from BBC, it has been revealed that China may have employed several foreign video bloggers to denounce negative coverage by the western press on highly controversial subjects such as human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet to even COVID. On the behest of CPC, these vloggers put out counter-narratives often riddled with disinformation and are attracting large numbers of subscribers on platforms like YouTube. These vloggers are openly presenting themselves as China-lovers, spreading Communist Party disinformation.

Owing to lack of community guidelines and transparency, many of these vloggers are suspected to having been paid for furthering CCP’s propaganda.

Who are these Pro-China vloggers?

For a few years now, the western media have been extremely critical against China over its persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjian autonomous area. Several vloggers have published their own investigative reports highlighting the harsh treatment meted out to the Uyghur community by China in its northwest Xinjiang region.

However, some vloggers including British expatriates Barrie Jones, Jason Lightfoot and father-and-son duo Lee and Oli Barrett, have been putting out counter-narratives against the western press and independent investigators by terming well-documented allegations of systematic abuse as anti-China propaganda by the west.

For example, the father-and-son duo – Lee and Oli Barrett, is believed to have travelled extensively in China. Many believe it was on a paid trip at the cost of Chinese government. Their profiles on social media platform appear quite pro-China where they ‘bust’ the ‘lies against China’. On their Instagram profile, the father-son duo has claimed to have more than a million followers across all platforms and 28 million views on YouTube.

Here is a video put out by Barretts accusing western media of being critical towards China and explaining how China has received negative press for a long time now.

Barrets have posted several videos on their Youtube channel. Initially, the duo started putting videos that focused focus on navigating daily life within China. However, more recent videos have become overtly political, staunchly backing China’s propaganda on topics ranging from Covid-19 to Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

These videos have attracted large viewers from China, who are fiercely promoting and commenting on them.

Lee and Oli Barrett in China/ Image Source: iChongqing

The Barretts have attended multiple government-sponsored events. In one of the videos, Lee Barrett had revealed that state-owned organisations such as China Radio International offer to pay for transport, flights and accommodation, in exchange for their videos.

Lee Barrett has been listed as a “global stringer” on CGTN’s website in recently published videos on Xinjiang. A stringer is somebody who reports for the broadcaster but is not a regular staff employee.

Another vlogger who has a considerable influence on Youtube is Jason Lightfoot. Like Barretts, Lightfoot is also listed as a stringer by CGTN. In addition, the Chinese media outlets have categorised him as a vlogger critical of “distorted reports” by Western media outlets.

Recently, Lightfoot appeared in several CGTN videos alongside multiple staff reporters on a visit to Hainan. In one such video, Lightfoot was seen thanking CGTN for giving him the experience to explore Hainan and to work with CGTN staff. In the video, the expat vlogger said he enjoyed working together, producing live streams and videos as a team”.

According to the BBC report, vlogging is strictly controlled in China, and there are strict rules restricting users what they can post. In addition, thousands of internet moderators screen content. The authorities have detained Chinese vloggers and citizen journalists for making videos deemed to be unfavourable by the authorities. 

However, foreign vloggers such as Barrett, Jason Lightfoot seems to enjoy a privileged position in China with significant access, and in some cases, facilitated by local officials or state media in China.

Interestingly, YouTube does not flag any of these pro-China vloggers as “funded or supported” by the Chinese government. The videos posted by foreign vloggers on their personal channels are subsequently uploaded to and endorsed by government media accounts. For example, a video featuring vlogger Barrie Jones was not only uploaded to CGTN’s YouTube account, but China’s foreign ministry used it in one of its daily government press briefings.

It is still rather unclear why China’s foreign ministry promoted Barrie Jones as some sort of a credible voice at one of its press conferences.

However, Barrie Jones, who comes across as a conspiracy theorist, denies that his videos are pro-China propaganda material and described claims that he is part of a disinformation campaign as “laughable”.

“Neither China nor the Chinese government pays me to do what I do. The truth is if they offered, I would accept,” Barrie Jones said to BBC.

Another vlogger from Israel – Raz Gal-Or, has posted videos of his recent trips to China. According to Gal-Or, he was invited into people’s homes and farms in Xinjiang. In a video, he was seen interviewing random Xinjiang locals. However, later it was revealed that a film crew from CGTN accompanied Gal-Or on his trip.

China wants to employ foreign vloggers to counter western media propaganda

It also appears that China has aggressively increased its network of foreigners with the help of state-owned media outlets. On its website, CGTN has mentioned that it currently has more than 700 “global stringers” worldwide, whom they offer “international visibility” and huge money.

China intends to expand the network of foreign influencers further by offering cash rewards of up to $10,000 (about Rs 7,50,000) to reporters, podcasters, vloggers, presenters and influencers who wish to join the newly-launched “media challengers” campaign. 

Incidentally, Jason Lightfoot and the Barretts have also featured in promotional material for this campaign.

As per the BBC report, the Chinese media outlets are now focusing on using “internet celebrities and influencers” to “fight back” against foreign media reporting.

There is a special “internet celebrities” department within CGTN, who contact foreigners to either use their videos or to co-operate to make videos together”, BBC reported. More recently, some departments have been instructed to “find foreigners to send to Xinjiang to represent us”.

Fake bots drive views and revenue for these vloggers, experts say

The above vloggers have successfully monetised their videos by quickly attracting tens of thousands of views on their channels, as well as hundreds of comments from Chinese commenters, even though YouTube is officially banned in China.

Australian cybersecurity researcher Robert Potter has claimed that even though some videos have attracted genuine views and support, there is evidence that fake bot accounts have been used to shoot up viewers’ data.

“There are a few things that YouTube does to stop someone repeatedly opening a video and playing it a thousand times,” he explained. Analysing Barretts’ YouTube page, Potter said, “You can see a lot of nationalist boards reposting [videos] and a mix of fake news sites boosting their content.

“This is ‘bot fraud’, where [users] stick a video on a fake news website and click through that instead of clicking replay on the YouTube video. They try and spoof YouTube into treating it like a legitimate view,” Potter said.

He observed a similar pattern on Barrie Jones’ videos as well. Potter said that there are several fake news pages with links to his videos on Xinjiang. He continued, “As for the comments on his videos, a large number of the users joined YouTube very recently. You can see the same people commenting again and again with obviously fraudulent accounts all created around the same time”.

These bots target videos that show China in a poor light, he said, adding, “The video that blows up is the Xinjiang video. It’s almost always the Xinjiang content.” These well-orchestrated attacks on social media have a long history in China. Previously, a group of social media accounts named “50 cent army” targeted anti-China accounts. They are named so because of reports they are paid small amounts of money to post pro-government messages.

This “keyboard army” has long been active, and with the advent of foreign vloggers, they have returned to inflate these vloggers’ presence and manipulate commentary on their pages. The scale of such campaigns is such that these propaganda videos could, in theory, rack up thousands of views organically.

During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube witnessed a coordinated attempt by the Chinese government to spread disinformation on their channels. Even Google had revealed that attempts were made to disguise the origin of these accounts.

Meanwhile, BBC approached Lee Barrett and Barrie Jones to what exactly drives them to make such videos. In response, the Barretts posted on Twitter describing BBC’s report as a “hit piece” by the “anti-China biased BBC”.

China and the fake factory

Recently, OpIndia had reported how after the images of Xiapu, with perfect landscape and romance went viral, many photography enthusiasts visited the town only to realise the photographs were all staged. The photographers and travellers realised upon reaching Xiapu that the entire town was just a setup and the images captured were not real or live events, but these are faked lifestyle photos taken from staged events. The entire town of Xiapu is nothing but a setup developed by the Chinese to make the country the world’s best photography hot spot.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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