KUALA LUMPUR – Last Monday, Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. disclosed that they had detected and deleted Chinese government-linked social media accounts sowing discord over the recent protests in Hong Kong.
The ominous-sounding announcements drew immediate comparisons to Russian efforts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election and suggestions that if China chose to operationalize its hidden social media capabilities it “could present a massive change to world politics.”
That’s unlikely. For decades, China has struggled to project its propaganda to foreign countries, whether via traditional media or social media platforms, with poor returns. The newly disclosed campaign is no different. Despite the ominous overtones, it was (as disclosed) small-scale and totally ineffective. Future campaigns, if they occur, aren’t likely to be much better. While vigilance is warranted, paranoia about a Chinese propaganda onslaught is not.
The roots of China’s recent social media campaigns can be traced back to 2013 and the early days of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule. After years of what it perceived as unfair and biased coverage, the new government called for an “effort to develop overseas publicity and spread China’s voice.” The plan emphasized the need to take advantage of new technologies and new media with the goal of shaping global discourse.
Among other steps, Chinese news agencies have spent lavishly building bureaus and staffs around the world. Over the last decade, Xinhua, China’s main news service, has boosted its number of foreign bureaus to 180, up from 110.
At the same time, China’s premier propaganda outlets have struggled to acquire online audiences abroad and so have resorted to paying for them. Last year, The New York Times documented how a Xinhua editor paid for hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and retweets. This followed on years of reports documenting similar buys by Xinhua and People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece publication of the Communist Party of China.
These purchases produce flashy numbers. Today, CGTN, China’s flagship televised propaganda outlet, has 83.7 million Facebook followers, compared with 49.6 million for the BBC, 16.6 million for The New York Times, and 8 million for The Guardian. Yet despite their impressive follower counts (many of which, it turns out, are based in countries notorious for hosting click farms), the influence of these online outlets is limited at best.
Of course, that’s not the only way to cultivate influence on social media. In China, fake and dummy accounts represent as much as 40 percent of all active users. Among the most prolific operators of these accounts is the Chinese government, which — according to one estimate — pays for nearly 450 million fake comments per year. Some of that content might actually influence users, as it seems to have done during the online frenzy over the Hong Kong protests.
It’s only natural that China’s propaganda authorities would attempt something similar on Twitter and Facebook.
On Monday, Twitter released a database containing the tweets made by the 936 accounts it identified as being connected to the alleged influence operation. Some of these accounts were established as far back as 2009, suggesting either very long-term planning — or a sudden, more recent decision to buy dummy accounts.
Whatever the backstory, a brief perusal of the database reveals that the vast majority of content tweeted by these accounts wasn’t related to Hong Kong and — most important — failed to generate retweets, likes or responses. In fact, most of the tweets in the database have no connection to the protests; some of the most popular appear to link to prurient material.
Facebook did not release a database containing the posts from the five accounts it accused of “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” But it did provide five screen grabs of Hong Kong-related posts. The most popular had been shared 33 times, hardly the stuff of a viral influence campaign.
It’s possible that China’s efforts will become more competent over time. But that will require more than money and fake accounts. It’ll demand a message and messaging that aren’t clearly outright propaganda. That’s hard enough to pull off in mainland China, where social media users are far more jaded than typically depicted. It’s even more difficult in Hong Kong, home to some of the world’s savviest news consumers.
Beyond China’s shores, China’s information warriors will need to develop an understanding and even empathy for the audiences they’re targeting. Social media companies and governments should remain alert to the possibility, but nobody should be fooled into thinking it’s imminent.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”