China’s cultural industry is being co-opted for disinformation operations
8 Feb 2022|

Beijing’s quest to promote positive images of China overseas blurs the distinction between publicity and propaganda. Government departments contract private companies to funnel disinformation on Western social media and co-opt influencers alongside their legitimate public-relations activities. Consequently, the country’s cultural industry is financially incentivised to follow a broader ideological agenda while being strangled by censorship and regulation on sensitive issues.

On 6 September 2021, a representative from a Hong Kong–based marketing agency, Pear Technology (梨科技), emailed more than 100 English-speaking YouTube influencers, mostly based in the US, offering cash to post promotional videos about Hainan, an island province of the People’s Republic of China. Accidentally, one of the recipients was the shared business email account of YouTube content creators and Chinese Communist Party critics Winston Sterzel and Matthew Tye.

After some initial correspondence, the representative offered Sterzel and Tye a new deal. They had another ‘client’ that could pay US$2,000 to promote a pre-made video insinuating that Covid-19 originated in North America and spread via white-tailed deer.

The emails received by Sterzel and Tye potentially provide new details of how Western content creators or ‘key opinion leaders’ can be approached by private companies to be co-opted into pro-CCP disinformation operations. Key opinion leaders, or ‘influencers’, are individuals who have a significant online following and authority on social media. They typically derive some income from producing social media content and can be leveraged by businesses to build brand awareness or trust in products. In ASPI’s December 2021 report Borrowing mouths to speak on Xinjiang, my colleagues and I explored how the CCP uses foreign social media influencers to shape and push messages domestically and internationally that are aligned with its preferred narratives.

A Pear Technology representative confirmed that the mysterious client was likely affiliated with the Chinese government but said they didn’t ‘really know who [their] client is and which department [they’re] from’. They said Pear Technology was a ‘freshly established start-up company’ and that its ‘development team does not really sample through [their] clients as [they] just want to make money’. Government personnel were also known to ‘email out to various digital marketing agencies with their needs and see if any of them would take this case’.

The Chinese government has an extensive history of persistent—and poor—attempts to spread Covid-19 origin conspiracy theories using their diplomatic corps, hijacked/bought social media accounts and influencers as proxies. In October 2021, the University of Oxford found that Chinese diplomats were claiming Covid-19 could have been imported to Wuhan, China, through a batch of Maine lobsters and that this narrative was amplified by a pro-CCP network on Twitter.

The new theory outlined in the video sent to Sterzel and Tye suggests that Covid-19 may have originated from the US instead of Wuhan because an August 2021 US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) study detected Covid-19 antibodies in samples of white-tailed deer blood that were collected in early 2020. The video cites a Nature article and claims that Covid-19 was possibly already circulating in the US before being reported in China. What the video fails to mention is that the APHIS study also explains that the single Covid-positive sample collected before January 2020 was likely a false positive due to a testing error, and was well within the expected false positive rate of the tests used.

The APHIS study was first reported accurately by Chinese state media on 5 August 2021, but later APHIS’s false-positive clarification was removed and spun by the Global Times, a tabloid newspaper of the People’s Daily, on 13 August 2021 to suggest Covid-19 was circulating in the US before it emerged in China. On the same day, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, posted a tweet making the same claim, and other state media outlets have shared similar articles and videos since.

ASPI reviewed the emails sent from Pear Technology and found that the same pre-made Covid-origin video Sterzel and Tye were asked to post has been shared by at least one other YouTube content creator, Jason Unruhe, the producer of Maoist Rebel News. In the emails from Pear Technology, Sterzel and Tye were asked to ‘integrate’ the pre-made video into one of their own videos. Unruhe’s video matches this format, but he denied he was paid or asked to publish the video after we reached out to him for comment. Instead, he said he found the footage on ‘some pro-China’ YouTube channel and ‘decided to go with it’. To be clear, ASPI is not suggesting that Jason Unruhe was paid to share the Covid-19 video.

Pear Technology, also known as PT.MOBI, is described as a subsidiary of a Beijing-based marketing start-up Yifan New Media (一帆新媒) on its website and engages in business outside China. It was founded by some of the same individuals behind Yifan New Media, which was reportedly founded by Tsinghua University graduates Shi Hongfei, Sun Jintao and Gu Qiwei. According to Yifan New Media’s website, it has around 50 video content producers, 70 operational staff and nearly 20 research and development staff. The company advertises multiple positions for overseas influencer recruiters on the Chinese recruitment website Lagou.

Yifan New Media is not likely a disinformation-for-hire firm and appears more likely to be an authentic commercial enterprise that was caught up in a government operation to promote Covid-origin conspiracy videos to key opinion leaders. The company is one of many new cultural production start-ups that are financially supported and incentivised to do party propaganda work without direct oversight. Yifan New Media placed third in the preliminary round of the 2020 Beijing cultural and creative competition, the Gehua Media Cup, which was co-sponsored by the Propaganda Department of the Changping District Party Committee. It was also a beneficiary of the 2019 ‘Rent Pass (房租通)’ program among 900 cultural companies that were subsidised up to 30% of their commercial tenancies. The fund was managed by the Propaganda Department of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee.

The approach of key opinion leaders or influencers in disinformation operations via third-party organisations is not a new tactic either. In the case of the North American deer Covid-origin theory, the Chinese government client has paralleled a similar tactic used in a 2021 Russian-linked active measure. Two Europe-based YouTube influencers were offered money by Fazze, a public-relations firm apparently based in London, to spread disinformation about the Pfizer–BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Open-source information revealed that in that case the company was likely a front for a Moscow-based company called AdNow reportedly owned by Yulia Serebryanskaya, who had close ties to the ruling United Russia Party. Some of the information in Fazze’s possession was also likely sourced from a cyberattack on the European Medicines Agency by possibly state-backed actors.

Unlike Russian active measures—which prefer to hack and leak information—CCP disinformation operations prefer to amplify or distort news reported in English-speaking countries that is favourable to CCP interests. Chinese government procurement documents show that, in 2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Information Department awarded ¥3.38 million (around US$500,000) to Global Times Online (Beijing) Cultural Communication, a subsidiary of the Global Times media organisation, for foreign ‘public opinion’ monitoring services. This capability, combined with Beijing’s pervasive foreign data collection and analysis, could explain some of the repeated attempts by Chinese diplomats—in coordination with international-facing Chinese state media—to manipulate foreign information for propaganda purposes.

Like the Chinese concept of dual-use (military–civilian) technologies, CCP foreign propaganda efforts appear to be making increasing use of hired and volunteer trolls by mobilising public-relation firms and cultural enterprises for both legitimate publicity purposes and disinformation. Maggie Baughman, an analyst at SOS International’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, analysed hundreds of Chinese public procurement documents and found that ‘government agencies at all levels are increasingly hiring professional companies to take over their social media management and online discourse work’. Some of these contracts may have been for reasonable purposes such as attracting tourism or promoting international events like the Beijing Winter Olympics, but other contracts may have enabled the spread of disinformation.

ASPI previously identified Changyu Culture, a marketing agency that had been contracted to amplify videos on Twitter and YouTube of Uyghurs apparently being supportive of the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang and denying claims of genocide using repurposed or inauthentic accounts. Meta has removed 524 accounts, 20 pages and four groups from Facebook and 86 Instagram accounts that were connected to the profile of a fake Swiss biologist who claimed the US was meddling in efforts to find the origins of Covid-19 and had links to employees of an information security firm, Sichuan Silence Information Technology.

On whether these operations are effective, adversarial intelligence agencies and propaganda organs of authoritarian governments might be sharing some of the same Western doubts about the impact of foreign interference on social media platforms and experimenting with new tactics.

The Moscow-based AdNow/Fazze public relations firm was operating a social media campaign on Facebook that had low engagement before it reached out to YouTube influencers. As the director of threat disruption at Meta, David Agranovich, points out, platform enforcement ‘forces adversaries to shift to targeting intermediaries like influencers instead of engaging directly. These tactics have a cost: they’re slower, harder, and riskier.’

Unruhe’s ‘Origins of Corona virus’ video, featuring the pre-made white-tailed deer video, received a little over 2,000 views between 28 September 2021 to 24 January 2022 and has not been widely disseminated. Unruhe’s willingness to repost the video (without receiving monetary payment) might indicate that methods used by the CCP (such as the constant barrage of Chinese state media and diplomatic propaganda amplified by fake accounts) may have found a receptive audience among groups and individuals in democracies who are already pro-CCP and anti-US imperialism.

For now, North American white-tailed deer are unlikely to become scapegoats for Covid-origin theories, but the Chinese government may be strategically posturing its domestic cultural industry, grooming certain demographics and creating a global information environment that might be more susceptible to future influence campaigns.