"The One Like One Share Initiative" - How China deploys social media influencers to spread its message

The CCP goes multilingual, multi (social) media & multinational to shape global opinions

A few years back, many Americans were shocked when an eerie video compilation  showed dozens of Sinclair news station commentators on air reciting, verbatim, the same talking points around the country. The robotic synchronization of the same message by many messengers jarred audiences and hearkened back to ideas of propaganda and mind control reminiscent of George Orwell’s ominous book 1984.

Today, those that can rapidly create, distribute, and repeat a message across many audiences over a sustained period can shape the perceptions of unwitting audiences, leading mobs to madness and making social media users mindless minions for hidden forces. Those creepy synchronized American newscasters from a couple years back … well that’s child’s play compared to what China’s government is doing today. 

While the U.S. has been fighting an internal information war, China has rapidly expanded its global media empire and broadened its social media presence in nearly every widely spoken language and on every major social media platform around the world. China’s state media is not just synchronizing a few local news anchors. Instead, they’ve created a global network of nearly 100 social media influencers spreading cleverly disguised Chinese propaganda in dozens of countries to a combined audience of over 11 million followers. This influencer network doesn’t just broadcast on one social media platform. From Facebook to TikTok, YouTube to Instagram, Twitter to Telegram — if there’s a social media platform, China has an influencer posting content on it.  

This network of social media propagandists broadcasts fluently in at least two dozen different languages, which include widely spoken languages like Arabic, Hausa, and Spanish, as well as some lesser-known ones like Esperanto. Most interestingly, the Chinese social media influencer network is overwhelmingly young, attractive, and female, an obviously gendered strategy to build a following and deliver targeted propaganda to a particular audience.  

A majority of the influencers observed are affiliated with China Radio International (CRI), a subset of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) publicity department. On Facebook, many of the influencers are labeled as “China state-controlled media,” but most don’t readily disclose their affiliation to their employers. Rather, they have cultivated personal brands as seemingly harmless lifestyle bloggers. Nearly all of the influencers have thousands of followers, and some have up to 2 million, even though they’ve only been active for the last two years.  

Generally, the influencers appear to follow a somewhat uniform set of themes and messages, suggesting they likely receive centralized direction from the Chinese government. Most content features at least one of three elements:

  • Rapport building - Influencers seek to connect with the audience by expressing an appreciation for a targeted country’s language, culture, and sometimes it’s religion

  • Positive promotion of China - This content tends to advance a positive view of Chinese culture, the Chinese language, the country’s technological innovations and economic progress.

  • Counternarrative - Interspersed among rapport building and cultural content, influencers often include posts advancing a political narrative or a rebuttal to criticisms of China. These messages tend to be tailored to the target audience. For example, Arabic-speaking influencers often dispute accusations of Muslim minority oppression inside China (i.e. Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang cotton fields).

We don’t think we’ve found every Chinese social media influencer in this network. We’re sure there are more out there, and this network will likely continue to grow. 

The CCP’s sophisticated media apparatus continues developing methods for China’s messages to reach global audiences more quickly and more frequently. And remember: People tend to believe that which they hear first, that which they hear the most, that which comes from a trusted source, and that which is not accompanied by a rebuttal. The longer this Chinese influencer network broadcasts, the more likely they will be to convince the world to trust the CCP. At present, there’s little to no American or European message to rebut the CCP's widely circulated narratives, especially when it comes to social media. 

In closing, China is using social media influencers to rewrite the past, author the present and dominate the future—pushing back democracy, by not one, but hundreds of photos and video clips at a time.

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Thanks to Colin, Nirit and all of my research team for their hard work, analysis and graphic design skills in this post. Thanks to Lukas for the video version of this post.

Note: For a video snapshot of these influencers, see our YouTube channel (Trust But Verify) and our new post - “One Pic, One Clip, One Click - How China deploys social media influencers to spread its message”.

For examples of the three pronged messaging approach employed by this influencer network, see these examples in Figure 4, 5 and 6 below.

Figure 4 - Rapport building: An Arabic-language CRI influencer, Ms. V Xiu Wei, tells her 1.1 million followers that she will try fasting for Ramadan for one day with Arabic-language CGTN influencer Lana.