Tea Leaf Nation

Where Did Chinese State Media Get All Those Facebook Followers?

People's Daily is surging on a social media platform Chinese citizens can't even access.

A Tibetan exile updates the Tibetan Youth Congress' Facebook page at a hospital, following reports that Tibetan Jamphel Yeshi, 27, who set himself on fire during an anti-China protest on March 26, had died earlier in New Delhi on March 28, 2012. A Tibetan exile who set himself alight two days ago in New Delhi in a protest against a visit to the city by Chinese President Hu Jintao died on March 27, doctors said. AFP PHOTO/TENGKU BAHAR        (Photo credit should read TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Tibetan exile updates the Tibetan Youth Congress' Facebook page at a hospital, following reports that Tibetan Jamphel Yeshi, 27, who set himself on fire during an anti-China protest on March 26, had died earlier in New Delhi on March 28, 2012. A Tibetan exile who set himself alight two days ago in New Delhi in a protest against a visit to the city by Chinese President Hu Jintao died on March 27, doctors said. AFP PHOTO/TENGKU BAHAR (Photo credit should read TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The headline was worthy of a double take, and the article read like a dispatch from a not-too-distant, perhaps dystopian future: “People’s Daily deputy editor in chief: Our number of Facebook fans second only to the New York Times.” The famously red mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party was claiming in a June 27 Chinese-language article that the popularity of its English-language Facebook page had overtaken those of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. It quoted its own deputy editor in chief, Lu Xinning, telling a media forum in Russia that the paper had 4.6 million fans on Facebook, even though the social media platform is blocked in China. (The total is now 5.7 million.) The achievement, she said, showed how social media was upending the old pecking order, letting some papers overtake their rivals “like cars on a winding road.” But a closer look suggests the state-funded Daily’s Facebook genuine fan base, which only surpassed 1,000 in April 2013, is not as large as the numbers make it seem.

It may appear strange that the paper would boast of its popularity on an American website that Chinese are forbidden to visit. But its U.S. social media footprint is not for Chinese audiences. Run by the paper’s bureau in New York City, the Daily’s Facebook page is essentially a form of advertising for its English-language service and for China itself. China is keen to project soft power through overseas Chinese-language learning centers known as Confucius Institutes but also via its media outlets, including the People’s Daily, China Daily, and China Central Television. The Facebook page of the People’s Daily offers a curated selection of news items that leans toward the odd and the international, much of it casting China in a positive light. Recent articles include a look at the favorite foods of foreign leaders (spoiler alert: U.S. President Barack Obama likes pizza), coverage of an underwater kissing contest in Shanghai, and photos of attractive young people participating in the Bubble Run, a sudsy 5K in the western city of Xi’an, which the paper claims (without citation) “is regarded as ‘the most fun 5K run in the world.’”

The Daily’s English-language Facebook page has only recently exploded in popularity. On April 6, the page had around 2,997,000 fans and was nearly neck and neck with USA Today’s page, which had around 2,953,000 fans, according to Socialbakers.com, a site that tracks Facebook’s user data. But between April and the end of June, the Daily surged ahead. By July 5, it had almost doubled its fan base and was up to around 5,743,000 fans, while USA Today was trailing with around 3,159,000. Contrary to the deputy editor in chief’s claim that the page was second only to the New York Times, there are plenty of other media outlets with more fans on Facebook, including National Geographic and Playboy. But it is nonetheless true that the Daily has more Facebook fans than the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many other venerated global news outlets. The Socialbakers site shows the Daily ranked 25th on a list of global print media Facebook pages.

The sudden growth of the Daily’s fan base and the geographic distribution of those fans raises questions about whether the paper looked to “click farms,” many of which are located in Southeast Asia, to help populate its millions of new fans. Click farms are businesses that sell social media “likes,” fans, and comments to help give clients the illusion of greater popularity. Click farms use fake computer generated Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, but also human employees with real accounts who “like” pages or become online fans.

There’s a fine line between garden-variety advertising and shadier practices. In July 2013, the U.S. State Department revealed after an internal audit that it had spent $630,000 on a campaign that some employees inside the agency considered equivalent to “buying likes.” Sometimes the distinction is obvious. A service helpfully called WeSellLikes.com advertises a package of 25,000 worldwide Facebook likes for just $599.99. Italian cybersecurity researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli estimated in a 2013 report on click farms that the business of fake Facebook activity was worth about $200 million a year. Stroppa told Foreign Policy that the industry relies on English-speaking youth in countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and India who spend their days online. “They get some pennies to like Facebook pages and to comment on Instagram pictures,” he said via Skype from Italy.

According to Socialbakers.com, more than 50 percent of the Daily’s fans come from Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Nepal. These are countries that Stroppa said are known click farm hubs. Indeed, People’s Daily fan numbers in those countries have climbed sharply over the last few months, while pages of competing media sites like USA Today and the Wall Street Journal did not. Nepal is a revealing case. The Daily has around half a million fans in Nepal, according to Socialbakers, a number that represents about 9 percent of the paper’s total Facebook fan base. That’s a huge number for a country of 27 million where just over one third of the population is online. Nepal added 307,671 new Daily fans between March 9 and June, Socialbakers shows, a relatively short span of time during which Nepal experienced its worst natural disaster in decades, the April 25 earthquake. During that same window of time, according to the same data, the New York Times added just 2,436 Nepalese fans, the Times of India just 3,224.

The New York office of the People’s Daily Online referred questions about the page’s sudden popularity to headquarters in Beijing; FP submitted an email query but did not receive a reply. Facebook did not respond to an email query about the Daily’s Facebook page.

FP reached out to several Pakistani fans of the Daily’s Facebook page. Umar Saeed, an engineering student in Multan, Pakistan, said via Facebook Messenger that he genuinely liked the Daily and its posts. “They show the economical as well as structural progress of the great country,” Saeed wrote. “I like that page bcz i [sic] am from Pakistan and we love Chinese people here.” (Pakistan has a strong relationship with China.) He said he has been on Facebook for five years and has never been paid to like a page. Another fan, Sohali Khan, made small talk via messenger but dodged questions about the People’s Daily and click farms. Stroppa, the Italian researcher, said he has interacted with many people on social media that he suspected of being click farm employees, but that it’s hard to be certain. There’s no obvious difference between a genuinely active Facebook fan and someone who is getting paid to be one. The big picture, however, is a little easier to discern. “Either China is the new master of journalism or what we are seeing is evidence of something not quite right,” Stroppa said. He estimated that it would have cost the Daily between $20,000 and $100,000 to amass 3 million paid Facebook fans over the last few months.

For their part, Chinese readers are generally either incredulous or irritated that a standard bearer for China’s tightly controlled media regime has been crowing about its global popularity on a website that censors have blocked domestically. One netizen on Weibo, China’s social media platform, wrote sardonically in response, “I would like to report the People’s Daily for illegally scaling the Great Firewall.” The “Great Firewall” refers to China’s extensive use of website blocks and content filters to prevent Chinese from navigating to sites that the government considers too politically sensitive, pornographic, or defamatory. Another wrote, tongue in cheek, “I would just like to know how the People’s Daily got on Facebook. Does the government know?” Perhaps fittingly, those comments were later censored.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, July 7, 2015: The name of the Italian researcher is Carlo De Micheli. A previous version of this article mistakenly spelled his name “Carla De Micheli.”

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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