A top news organization run by the ruling Chinese Communist Party has hired two specialist social media and data management firms to boost their Facebook fans and followers on Twitter.
The China News Service, the second largest state-owned news agency in China after Xinhua, is run by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which was absorbed into the United Front Work Department—the external influence and outreach agency—of the Chinese Communist Party in 2018.
Two official procurement documents seen by RFA for Twitter and Facebook specialists respectively offered contracts worth up to 1.3 million yuan each to companies that can boost their follower counts on those platforms by more than half a million.
The contracts were won by Beijing-based data and social media specialists OneSight and a company identified as Weina Industrial, also based in Beijing.
A customer service employee who answered the phone at OneSight confirmed that the company does indeed engage in such services.
"[We can] look at the actual growth of a specific account you send us on Twitter, then we can research the audience for that account," the employee said. "We use a special department to evaluate this. We have specialist marketing teams targeting Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to aid your expansion. We can do it."
No contact details were available online for Weina, however.
Just an illusion
Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the Centre for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong, said that adding a large number of followers in a short period of time actually just creates the illusion that more people are reading a certain account.
"The fact that they are using such methods to increase the number of people following their accounts and creating new audiences to encourage more people to read and share should tell us something," Fu said. "It tells us that there is important information [that they want to get across]."
"It's not at all surprising that it is the state-run media doing this," he said. "It helps give the impression that what they are putting out is important, and it may aid the spread of fake news."
Fu said the organizations seem to be neglecting the interactive nature of social media, in a country where the imparting of the government's official line is usually a one-way street.
"This is two-way, not one-way, communication, because you have likes, comments, and sharing, which are among the indicators that show if an account is active and influential," he said.
The tender documents also indicated that targets for new followers through February 2020 are based on follower numbers for other state-run media including the People's Daily, Xinhua, the China Daily and CGTN.
Pages and posts removed
Earlier this week, Facebook and Twitter both said they had taken steps to remove coordinated posts they had linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Today, we removed seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong," Facebook said in a news release on Aug. 19.
"The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts—some of which had been already disabled by our automated systems—to manage Pages posing as news organizations, post in Groups, disseminate their content, and also drive people to off-platform news sites," it said.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government," it said.
The groups and pages had been followed by at least 15,500 accounts prior to being removed, it said.
Twitter said it had uncovered "a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change."
It said some 936 accounts originating from within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were "deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground."
"We have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation," the company said on its official blog. "All the accounts have been suspended for a range of violations of our platform manipulation policies."
Reported by Ma Lap-hak, Pan Jiaqing and Fok Leung-kiu for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.