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CCP outsourcing propaganda campaigns to content farms in Taiwan and Australia: Think tank

‘Influence-for-hire services’ pillar of Asia-Pacific’s online shadow economy

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Profile photos of Qiqi Network News pages (Facebook photo)

Profile photos of Qiqi Network News pages (Facebook photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A new report by Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reveals how audiences in Australia and Taiwan have been targeted by a common strategy of online manipulation via Chinese news content farms.

The report, Influence for hire: the Asia–Pacific’s online shadow economy, looks at cases of online manipulation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Australia, and shows how a range of commercial firms “from content farms through to high-end PR agencies” are implementing influence operations for state actors.

Researchers from the security-focused Australian think tank teamed up with Taiwanese civic group DoubleThink Lab (台灣民主實驗室) to check two prominent Chinese-language content farms — Au123.com and Qiqis.org — for narrative alignment with Chinese state messaging surrounding the events of the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6.

They found spikes in bias through a substantial increase in the phrases found in Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled sources around that time, repeating phrases commonly used by Chinese diplomats, such as “a beautiful sight to behold” (美丽的风景线) in reference to the riots.

“The language and tactics used reflect the CCP’s broader strategy to undermine the global standing of the US and spread the perception of democracy in decline,” the report states. The farms were also found to promote CCP-aligned disinformation on the origins of COVID-19 and party talking points on topics relating to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The report suggests that content farms, which have obscure organizational structures and churn out low-quality content in pursuit of pay-per-click ad revenue, are ideal propaganda proxies, revealing financial affiliations between at least one of the sites and the CCP.

These “contractual arrangements to republish state-produced content” via third-party outlets allow Beijing “an indirect channel into the Chinese-language information ecosystem in Australia and Taiwan through which to shape perceptions about contemporary geopolitical events,” according to the report.

The report also sheds light on the content farms' strategy to leverage network effects and boost SEO in creating “a self-contained content-sharing ecosystem.”

Qiqi’s news, for example, has several Facebook fan pages with similar profile pictures and names, such as "Qiqi watches news" (琦琦看新聞), "Qiqi watches life" (琪琪看生活), "Qiqi reads history" (琪琪看歷史) and "Qiqi tells fortune" (琪琪看运势), which promote posts from within the network.

The think tank recommends the opening of multi-stakeholder approaches, including an “an Asia–Pacific centre of excellence in democratic resilience” that could enable public-private collaboration to keep the health of the region’s online sphere in check. It also encourages initiatives to reshape the business models behind content farms so that these publications make more “productive contributions to the region’s digital economy.”


Updated : 2022-05-18 08:24 GMT+08:00