China’s propaganda spreads beyond its borders via Facebook groups

Chris Zappone, May 31st 2019, The Age

The groups publicise stories around China’s plan for global economic integration while criticising the Western rule-based order, sometimes using Russian-backed media.

The group 21SilkRoad, which includes Australians, shares a mix of news and material linked to Russia’s global propaganda apparatus, to “build a virtual community of the major centres along the Belt and Road Initiative megaproject”.

Australia has declined participation in the trillion-dollar Beijing-led infrastructure and trading project, also known as BRI, over national interest concerns.

In addition to 21SilkRoad – a moniker for the Belt and Road Initiative – another group champions China with a similar mix of anti-Western conspiracy. Another group supports Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The groups show how easily citizens can align themselves with authoritarian regimes, despite their own representative governments’ position. The 21SilkRoad group claims more than 20,000 members in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia.

The groups are “very useful to state communication operations, precisely because they’re independent”, said US-based Ben Nimmo at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who tracks online influence and interference.

The posts amplify Chinese and Russian state messaging, he said, but by people who likely believe the messages they’re passing.

“The groups are likely to be the effect of state information operations, rather than the cause.”

21SilkRoad is described as a “sister group” to a group supporting ‘Xi Jinping – China’s Exceptional President’.

The founder of the Xi group also operates a Gofundme page, and describes it as “one of the largest FB groups that tells the truth about what’s really going on in China.” It has nearly 22,000 members.

The scale of the $US1 trillion ($1.4 trillion) BRI has the potential to divide democracies internally along economic interests, weakening Western resolve. Last year, the State of Victoria signed a BRI memorandum of understanding with Beijing despite Canberra having so far refused to fully endorse it.

Facebook group, ‘From Asia with Love’ (13,000 members), posted news items from around the region, interspersed with posts from a Canada-based geopolitical conspiracy site, Global

Transparency tools provided by Facebook reveal the group was originally badged ‘Friends of China & Russia’.

The 21SilkRoad group contains a poll of top 100 “alternative media” sites, with the highest ranked sources being Russia-backed networks RT and Sputnik and Global Research. Both RT and Sputnik are registered as foreign agents in the US, while Global Research disseminates anti-Western conspiracy theories.

Administrators from the groups have been contacted for comment.

Facebook said the groups don’t violate community standards and had found only one inauthentic account linked to them, which has been removed.

Although the majority of the content posted by the groups appears to be authentic, the content is curated in a way to shape public opinion.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University, said the groups had hallmarks of Communist Party-linked propaganda.

“These efforts are, I think, crude for social media-savvy people,” he said. “But for the general public, it’s less clear.”

“In some ways, the aim of the propaganda is not to change minds wholesale, but to dilute the stream of news as to frame present debates and perceptions.”

Even though the groups can’t be attributed to Beijing, they are at the “very least … a by-product of state policies.”

“They come about in an ecosystem that the party-state has fostered to promote its messages,” Ni said.

A recent US Defence Department report on Chinese military developments, noted that: the Chinese Communist Party “seeks to condition domestic, foreign, and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept China’s narrative surrounding its priorities like [Belt and Road] and South China Sea territorial and maritime claims.”