An International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) study released Wednesday found China’s influence over worldwide media increased dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) worked aggressively to rewrite the narrative of the coronavirus to erase Beijing’s culpability and spin China in a more positive light, especially in the Third World.
“The coronavirus story over the past 12 months has been successfully used by China to create a more positive image of China, in a number of countries,” IFJ deputy general secretary Jeremy Dear told Voice of America News (VOA) on Wednesday.
Dear said, during the pandemic, China began “putting a lot more effort and resources into trying to shape the media narrative.” This effort was aided by plunging ad revenue during the pandemic, which prompted newsrooms to shed jobs and become more dependent on free content provided by China’s influence network.
The CCP also cleverly made foreign outlets more dependent upon content crafted in Beijing by kicking foreign reporters out of China.
“This had the effect of creating a vacuum in China coverage, creating a demand for stories from China, which could then be filled with state-sponsored content already available through content-sharing agreements. This has the effect of increasing the global media’s dependence on China for content, whether that be news stories or softer cultural content,” IFJ explained.
That dependence became even more profound when the biggest story in the world, the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, came straight out of China — even though China used its influence over foreign media, very much including American media, to muzzle discussion of where the virus came from. The coronavirus created an insatiable appetite for news from China, and the CCP made sure it was the only vendor for that hottest of information products.
“More than half of all countries said that coverage of China in their national media was more positive since the start of the pandemic. The percentage of nations reporting China to have a visible presence in their media ecosystems was up from 64 percent to 76 percent in a year,” said the IFJ report.
IFJ said its findings reveal “an activation of the existing media infrastructure China has put in place globally, which includes training programs and sponsored trips for global journalists, content sharing agreements feeding state-sponsored messages into the global news ecosystems, memoranda of understanding with global journalism unions, and increasing ownership of publishing platforms.”
The report warned that foreign governments and journalists “tended to underestimate Beijing’s impact on their media systems during Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus],” because they were “confident that their own media literacy or political systems would protect the media ecosystem from Chinese encroachment.”
“But when viewed globally, the results looked very different. China is coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic with more positive global coverage of its actions and policies than pre-pandemic,” IFJ noted.
The report was based on a survey of 54 journalist unions affiliated with IFJ from 50 different countries and territories, conducted from December 2020 to January 2021. A similar survey conducted by IFJ before the coronavirus pandemic was used as a baseline to measure the impact of Chinese propaganda and media manipulation.
That impact was profound indeed: 56 percent of the survey respondents said, “coverage of China in their country had become more positive overall since the Covid-19 outbreak, while only 24 percent said coverage of China had become more negative.” Europe saw the biggest positive changes to its media coverage of China, while North America saw the most negative changes.
IFJ said China has been building a “sophisticated media outreach infrastructure” since 2009, with distressingly little resistance to the carefully tailored and translated “free content” presented to journalists in other countries.
Disturbingly, many of the journalists who think China did not have a major impact on their content were also very well aware of how much Chinese “news” their services are now uncritically running. One news agency in Italy runs fifty articles a day from China’s state-run Xinhua news service. Every single journalist responding to the survey from Africa said China’s influence on their media is now clearly visible.
IFJ credited the CCP with carefully and patiently increasing the amount of content they pump into foreign news organizations over the span of a decade, slowly boiling the proverbial frog so it never felt the heat and jumped out of the pot. The Chinese are experts at using social media networks — including the sort of bot networks and paid trolls that social media platforms ostensibly prohibit — to amplify propaganda from CCP officials until the social media buzz becomes news content. Tens of thousands of fake Chinese accounts were neutralized by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in 2020, but the CCP’s influence networks are still functional.
The report detailed an example of Chinese media influence that should be notorious around the world, because it got a lot of people killed: China carpet-bombing Italy with fake stories and disinformation during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, much of it rather clearly designed to make Italians more vulnerable to the disease. One reporter recalled Chinese disinformation telling Italians that “it makes no sense to wash our hands.”
This was followed by a massive “courtship” effort by China to begin infusing CCP content into Italian media by offering reporters free “gifts” such as speeches by dictator Xi Jinping translated into Italian, packaged and ready for them to run as “news content” with very little effort. Reporters were also signaled that they would be provided with useful content by the Chinese embassy to Italy if they complied with “a certain way of producing information.”
IFJ’s affiliates claimed they largely resisted these overtures.
“I think we have the necessary antibodies to understand and identify fake news, and to refuse them. But that doesn’t mean that there is not an attempt on behalf of China to influence us. And just beyond the quality, it’s also about the quantity of information,” one journalist said.
As the authors of the IFJ report made clear at the outset, journalists tend to believe their organizations are much more resistant to Chinese influence than they really are. When the “sharp power” of simply flooding foreign news outlets with Beijing’s propaganda does not work, China uses the “soft power” of cultural and entertainment products — from TV shows and movies to online platforms and games — to spread its message. Signal-boosted Chinese propaganda has a way of infiltrating news coverage without journalists realizing their stories about viral videos and Internet controversies are actually spreading disinformation that was crafted in China.
The IFJ report concluded with some recommendations that amounted to teaching global journalists how to better recognize Chinese disinformation and increasing awareness of “China’s global media outreach.” Pressuring Beijing to issue more visas for foreign journalists was a key policy goal, presumably to break up the CCP’s monopoly on news emanating from China.
“Regional workshops could also offer journalism education in transparency in sourcing and reporting, so journalists put pressure on their employers to label Chinese content more clearly,” the report advised.