CHINA is feared to be using millions of fake accounts on Facebook to try and spread Covid misinformation.
It is an operation which may have inflated the Communist Party pages to be some of the most “popular” on the social media platform.
English-language versions of Chinese state media outlets dominate lists of the largest accounts – despite Facebook actually being BANNED in China.
China’s enormous pages have more followers than some of the world’s most popular celebrities – including Will Smith, Lionel Messi, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
The outlets also totally overwhelm sports teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, and brands such as Coca-Cola, YouTube and McDonald’s.
Experts told The Sun Online these astonishing numbers of followers are likely heavily inflated by mass mobilisations of bot accounts to boost the pages to try give them more reach in the West.
MPs called on Facebook to investigate after Ofcom government took action revoke the license of Chinese state TV channel CGTN.
CGTN and state-run news outlets such as China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, The Global Times and People’s Daily are far and away the biggest news media outlets on Facebook.
Tom Tugdenhat MP said Facebook was allowing China to spread its propaganda, while Tobias Ellwood MP demanded the platform has a “duty to act” in combatting Chinese misinformation.
Facebook assured The Sun Online it takes down any “harmful misinformation” spread by the publications – and defended their place on the platform as they are “clearly labelled” as state media.
All of the pages have also grown rapidly over the last few months as they picked up millions of more followers, according to monitoring site Socialbakers.
And all of them are known to heavily push China’s narrative on the pandemic and other fake news – having been given a negative “red” rating for trustworthiness by monitoring group NewsGuard.
Labels do appear there on the pages under a section about “transparency” – but these are not immediately visible while your timeline browsing on desktop or mobile.
The media outlets have spread dangerous fake news about vaccines, about the origins of the virus, and aggressively promoted China’s Covid response.
CGTN has published stories explaining why coronavirus is a “US weapon” , The Global Times has run pieces claiming the Pfzier jab may contain “toxic substances”, and The People’s Daily tried to link 30 people dying in Norway to the jab.
CGTN is the fourth biggest page on Facebook with 115million followers – dwarfing every other media outlet – and only behind pages for Facebook itself, Samsung and Cristiano Ronaldo.
China Daily is close behind with 103million, with Xinhua having 89million, the People’s Daily having 86million, and the firebrand Global Times having 61million.
Facebook risks enabling Beijing to spread its propaganda campaigns to tens of millions.
Tom Tugdenhat MP
The only media outlet that comes close is National Geographic, which has 64million followers – around half that of the biggest Chinese accounts.
No other news pages beyond the five Chinese outlets and NatGeo even reach the top 50 largest pages on Facebook.
Contrast this to the followers to other leading media outlets such as the BBC, which has 53million, CNN, that sits at 34million, and Fox News, with 18million.
The baffling figures are believed to be part of a wider campaign by the Chinese state to increase its influence in Britain and America – especially as relations frost over amid ongoing rows with the Covid-19 pandemic.
It comes as Facebook has promised to take stricter actions on fake news, including throttling certain accounts it deems unreliable and kicking people off the platform, like Donald Trump – who had 40million followers.
Chinese state media also has large presence on Twitter, but these pages are much smaller than they are on the social network – with CGTN having 13.6million followers, around 9 per cent of their platform on Facebook.
No accounts from China even make it into the top 50 largest accounts on Twitter, which labels the accounts as “state-affiliated media” beneath their names on user’s timelines.
Mr Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told The Sun Online: “Over the past year, it’s become clear that CCP officials and Chinese state-owned media have embraced the tactic of using Western social media platforms to spread disinformation about Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Covid-19.
“Facebook risks enabling Beijing to spread its propaganda campaigns to tens of millions.
“Social media platforms need to be held accountable for the spread of disinformation that threatens our democracy.”
Mr Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, added: “This illustrates the double standards by China where Facebook is banned. Yet it leaps on Facebook in the West to promote its own messaging. You should not have it both ways.
“Facebook should have the courage to call China out and recognise how it is being used as a virtual window to promote Chinese state thinking.
“If Ofcom saw fit to ban CGTN from the UK then Facebook has a duty to act.”
Whose who of Chinese state media
CHINA is one of the most tightly controlled nations in the world for the press – and is ranked 177 out of 179 for media freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
Many of the newspapers and television channels in China are state controlled and are given the mission to promote the Communist Party ideology both abroad and at home.
CGTN – The international division of Chinese state TV, which has somehow found itself as the fourth biggest page on Facebook. It has been accused of spreading propaganda, disinformation and has aired forced confessions.
The channel recently had its UK broadcasting license revoked by Ofcom, much to the fury of the Chinese state who responded by banning BBC World News.
China Daily – Owned by the Communist Party, this English language newspaper has been branded as a “government mouthpiece” as it also spreads disinformation.
The newspaper has also been condemned for its portrayal of Uyghur Muslims, including a report that brutal policies enacted by the regime had “emancipated” the minority people’s women from being “baby making machines”.
The Global Times – Often seen as the unfiltered mouthpiece of the Communist Party, this fiery tabloid pulls no punches in its aggressive rhetoric – taking on anyone who stands in the way of the regime.
It is known for the its vicious editorials which often take aim a China’s international rivals, and more recently has been spreading doubts over the Pfzier vaccine.
People’s Daily – Much more subdued than the Global Times, this newspaper puts on no airs about being the voice of the Communist Party.
The US State Department last year declared the outlet a “foreign mission” as it ordered it disclose information about it operation.
Xinhua News Agency – With 170 foreign bureaus, Xinhua is one of the world’s largest news agencies – yet works under the control of the Chinese state.
It ordered to register as a foreign agent in 2018 by the US but failed to do so – and was also declared a “foreign mission” in 2020.
Hannah Bailey, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), told The Sun Online they suspect a large amount of the followers on these Facebook pages are “inauthentic” users, such as bots.
Ms Bailey explained the colossal follower counts help give the pages gravity and draw in more real users who can then be exposed to China’s narratives.
She said: “Its very hard to confirm a bot, but we strongly suspect a lot of these followers and engagers are bot accounts which amplify the messaging of the Chinese state so its reaches real users.
“The more followers these platforms have, the more these outlets will be recommended to other people who will receive their message. Its a tool by the Chinese state.”
The OII produced a paper last year which revealed how Chinese state media had massively pushed its narrative on Covid, gaining millions of views and vastly outperforming Western media outlets.
China spread conspiracy theories including that the virus may have been deployed by the US military in Wuhan, and claims that the virus may have actually originated in Italy.
More recently – Chinese state media has been sharing falsehoods about the Pfizer vaccine, while simultaneously promoting its own jabs.
Theresa Payton, the first female chief intelligence officer at the White House, CEO of Fortalice Solutions, told The Sun Online: “It is highly likely that some of the followers are legitimate but there could be a large percentage that are fake personas and bots managed by artificial intelligence algorithms.
“China denies conducting such campaigns but research continues to reveal that they leverage the manipulation playbook using various truths in their news organizations, repurposed news adding twists and disinformation, setting up fictional organizations, fake personas, chatbots and artificial intelligence.
“China actively engages in ‘public-opinion guidance management.’ What you and I would call misinformation, disinformation, and manipulation campaigns.
“They manipulate both their own citizens and their global image through these campaigns.”
Dr Tim Stevens, the head of the Cyber Security Research Group at King’s College London, told The Sun Online the incredible presence China has on Facebook is “almost certainly” inflated with bots and troll accounts.
But he added a large number may be genuine Chinese users who accessing the pages via VPNs – with China choosing to exploit this through their slick state media, rather than cracking down on them.
Dr Stevens said: “It is trying to discredit the West. To be a world power you have to have a voice in world affairs.”
He added: “Chinese state media is used to ‘soften up’ opinions all over the world – trying to put a Chinese flavoured set of content, there is a lot of it and there seems to be an audience for it.”
Gray Sergeant, a research fellow from the Asian Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, told The Sun Online: “The aim is to shape attitudes towards the communist party and thinking about China’s place in the world.”
He added: “China has a track record of buying social media ads and paying internet trolls to push its propaganda.
“However, more worrying still is the possibility that these huge numbers are in fact real people and the result of Chinese Communist Party’s enormous efforts to re-shape the global media landscape.”
In a statement, Facebook told The Sun Online: ““We clearly label media outlets that are under the editorial control of their government, including from China, to help people better understand who’s behind the news they see.
“We do not allow anyone, including state-controlled media, to post harmful misinformation and we will remove it as soon as we become aware.
“We also work with 80 independent fact-checking partners around the world to debunk false claims.”
Relations between the West and China remain strained as the Covid pandemic continues to ravage the world – so far killing 2.6million people after emerging in Wuhan.
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Documents already revealed Beijing downplayed the bug to “protect its image“, and there have been repeated allegations that China has manipulated its death and case figures.
China is taking an increasingly aggressive stance through its “wolf warrior” diplomacy as it pushes back against the West.
And questions remain whether Covid could have originated from a lab leak in Wuhan, with the World Health Organisation ordering a fresh probe into the claims.
The Sun Online previously revealed a missing “dark database” from the Wuhan lab which could be a smoking gun on key questions about the origins of Covid.
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