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Bots, trolls, and buyouts: US accuses China of global media manipulation

By Michael Martina

September 29, 2023 — 7.17am

Washington: China is manipulating global media through censorship, data harvesting and covert purchases of foreign news outlets, the United States said on Thursday, warning the trend could lead to a “sharp contraction” of global freedom of expression.

The US State Department said in a report that Beijing has spent billions of dollars annually on information manipulation efforts, including by acquiring stakes in foreign media through “public and non-public means,” sponsoring online influencers and securing distribution agreements that promote unlabelled Chinese government content.

President Xi Jinping on television.

President Xi Jinping on television.Credit: AP

“Beijing uses false or biased information to promote positive views of the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party,” the report stated. “At the same time, the PRC suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In July, Beijing responded to a NATO communiqué accusing it of coercive policies and spreading disinformation by saying the statement disregarded basic facts, deliberately discredited China and distorted its policies.

How China and Russia recycle each others’ content.

How China and Russia recycle each others’ content.Credit: US State Dept/Internet

The US report comes amid controversy over China’s efforts in recent years to expand the global footprint of its government-controlled media, especially as geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington has intensified. Chinese leaders have sought to combat the negative images of China they feel are spread by world media.

Citing public reports and “newly acquired government information,” the State Department’s Global Engagement Centre said that Beijing had created its own information ecosystem by co-opting foreign political elites and journalists.

China and Russia routinely support each other’s narratives, the report said.

“In a recurring pattern, PRC state media amplify unverified or debunked claims from Russian media, which Russian outlets then cite to portray the Kremlin’s views and its aggression against Ukraine as widely supported.“

China had also invested in satellite networks and digital television services in developing regions that prioritise Chinese state-backed media content.

Chinese data harvesting overseas “has enabled Beijing to fine-tune global censorship by targeting specific individuals and organisations,” it said.

“Unchecked, Beijing’s efforts could result in .... a sharp contraction of global freedom of expression,” the report said.

Beijing employs bots, trolls, and coordinated social media campaigns to boost pro-PRC content and to drown out critical voices.

“Through flooding – a tactic that manipulates search engine results and hashtag searches – the PRC drowns out information around sensitive topics or events with unrelated content and renders fact-based, substantive information more difficult for users to find,” the report said.

For example, over 1000 pro-PRC accounts also sought to bury a report by the Spain-based nongovernmental organisation Safeguard Defenders that detailed the presence and coercive activities of 100 “overseas police service stations” in 53 countries.

Despite unprecedented resources devoted to the campaign, Beijing had encountered “major setbacks” when targeting democratic countries due to local media and civil society push back, according to the report, which was produced under a congressional mandate to detail state information manipulation.

Reuters with staff reporter

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