Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 4 March 2021


China’s BBC Attacks Show Growing Sophistication in Propaganda, Report Says

  • Beijing targeting Western audiences: Australian think tank
  • China has frequently attacked the research group’s credibility

China’s attempts to discredit the BBC show an increased sophistication in tailoring propaganda for Western audiences, an Australian research group said Thursday.

Chinese officials participated in a social media campaign against the BBC after it aired a report on Feb. 2 featuring Uighur women who alleged that detainees in camps in the province of Xinjiang were systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured. China’s Foreign Ministry denied the allegations and accused the BBC of making a “false report.”

The ensuing weeks saw a spike in social-media activity from Chinese diplomats and state media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube criticising the BBC, said Jacob Wallis, a senior analyst at the International Cyber Policy Centre, which is under the umbrella of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI. He authored the report with researcher Albert Zhang.

“This was a particularly sustained period of activity,” Wallis said in an interview. “It was also novel in terms of the coordination across different media, diplomatic Twitter accounts retweeting Chinese television reports featuring Western voices based in China, because they know those voices will be effective at penetrating international discourse.”

Tensions between the U.K. and China increased after Beijing last year imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government offered a path to citizenship for millions of the city’s residents. On Feb. 4, U.K. government regulator Ofcomm revoked the license of state-run China Global Television Network after investigators found it didn’t have editorial control over broadcasts in the U.K. A week later China took the BBC off the air, saying its reports weren’t “truthful and fair.”

China’s diplomats have become more aggressive in recent years in seeking to shape the narrative around Beijing’s actions, leading some to describe them as “Wolf Warriors” in reference to a nationalist Chinese movie released in 2015. Whereas once Chinese officials used party talking points on Western social media to defend government policy, they are now more adept at messaging, according to the ASPI report.

China’s repurposing of domestic internet content to influence Chinese-language audiences around the world, along with using Western voices to resonate internationally, demonstrate its increased understanding in finding new ways to drive influence across cultural and linguistic boundaries, Wallis said. They are also using bespoke content, established social themes and shared political ideologies like anti-Western imperialism, he added.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to ASPI’s findings, and nor did the BBC. Chinese state media and diplomats have frequently attacked the credibility of the research group, which was established by the Australian government in 2001 and has disclosed additional funding from global defense contractors and Western diplomatic missions. Wallis said this report “hasn’t flowed from any specific project so is untied to any specific funder.”

When it came to targeting the BBC, Wallis said, Chinese officials used an existing narrative around criticism of the broadcaster by its own domestic audience in the U.K. A Chinese diplomat in Lebanon named Cao Yi retweeted a tweet from the BBC defending its reporting but which had dozens of replies criticizing it. He called the BBC the “Biased Broadcasting Channel,” a phrase used for years by the broadcaster’s domestic critics, the ASPI report noted.

Beijing’s online advocates have “become a lot more like the Russians, who are very skilled at making their messages look genuine and authentic,” said John Lee, a Sydney-based senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based research group.

“It used to be a group of bloggers based somewhere in China, inserting themselves into conversations happening around the world,” he said. “Now it’s clearly people who understand the conversation very well and are tapping into it quite effectively.”

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