October 1, 2020

French-Language Chinese State Media: Strategies and social media account analysis

October 2020

Executive summary

  • Building on recent studies on the use of state-controlled media in several countries as both producers and amplifiers of online disinformation, this report focuses on the activities of Chinese state-controlled media in France. In doing so, the report aims to shine a light on suspicious activities that we identified around some of their social media accounts. [1]
  • Several French-speaking social media accounts belonging to Chinese state media outlets have an impressive number of followers. At the same, they generate very little engagement.
  • Among the clues that make us suspect inauthentic activities, we noticed:
    • The view count on videos posted on Twitter by the Chinese media outlets is extremely low compared to the number of followers, suggesting many of the accounts’ followers are not engaging with the content proposed.
    • Performances of some specific Facebook posts analysed through CrowdTangle are excessively high compared to the normal engagement generated by most of the Chinese media’s posts, suggesting a possible artificial promotion of some posts on Facebook pages that usually do not generate much engagement.
    • We noticed a marked discrepancy between the traffic on the websites of the French-speaking Chinese outlets and the number of fans or followers on their social media accounts.
  • Similar discrepancies were also noticed by an investigation by Le Monde, which is available here.
  • Clearer definitions and data related to Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour released by online platforms would allow civil society to better assess this kind of online manipulation of information. At this stage, EU DisinfoLab can only take note of these discrepancies and renews our call for an obligation for transparency on these matters.
  • Dubious authenticity and limited or possible artificial engagement of its social media accounts render the success of China’s media strategy in French difficult to assess.
  • If Chinese state-controlled media focus on promoting a favourable image of the country abroad and often present themselves as a positive tool to improve the understanding between China and the rest of the world, they are also regularly used to defend more directly the political positions of the country, and more importantly those of the Party (CCP). [2],[3],[4]
  • This double messaging often lacks subtlety. For example, we discovered a network of bloggers/video producers linked to Chinese media outlets in French who slip coarse messages of political or strategic interest into the middle of a series of cultural or lifestyle-themed articles about China.
  • In contrast with Russian state-controlled media in the French-speaking world, which can extensively cover polarising issues in France in a provocative tone, a narrative study shows that French-speaking Chinese state-controlled media tend to focus more on promoting a positive image of their country and defending China’s global geopolitical narratives (especially in a logic of confrontation with the US), rather than amplifying existing divisions in France. Consequently, the lack of coverage of French issues by Chinese media and their editorial policies, though less controversial than Russian state media, seem for now to generate little engagement on social media in France.

Download the report

[1] See for example this study from the Oxford Internet Institute (June 29, 2020), by Katarina Rebello et al., Covid-19 News and Information from State-Backed Outlets Targeting French, German and Spanish-Speaking Social Media Users: Understanding Chinese, Iranian, Russian and Turkish Outlets“.

[2] Following recommendations by academics and civil society leaders, Twitter started implementing on 19 August 2020 a new policy, using the expression state-controlled media instead of state-owned media. We follow this categorization that reflects the editorial independence of the outlets and not only its ownership.

[3] In his congratulatory letter for the creation of CGTN in 2016, the Chinese president Xi Jinping said for example: “China needs to know better about the world and the world needs to know better about China.”  In the description of its French Facebook page, Xinhua News says: “We are here to make you discover a, evolving China and a multifaceted world”. Similarly, Radio Chine Internationale states: “RCI talks about everything related to China: politics, economy, culture, tourism and society. It wants to be a window on China for you!”.

[4] Edward Wong, The New York Times (22 February, 2016), Xi Jinping’s News Alert: Chinese Media Must Serve the Party.