The United States should ban Chinese and Russian state media companies from large social media platforms. If Congress fails to act, U.S. social media companies will continue to subvert democracy by providing free electronic amplification services for Chinese and Russian state media companies engaged in information warfare.
In early March, the European Union banned RT and Sputnik, Russia’s state media companies, for spreading “systematic disinformation over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Facebook blocked access to RT and Sputnik in the EU and YouTube blocked channels funded by the Russian government globally. However, the EU and social media companies have failed to address another critical source of misinformation about the war in Ukraine: Chinese state media companies.
Chinese state media companies are spreading false and misleading narratives about the war in Ukraine to billions of people around the world. The Washington Post reports that Chinese media companies support Russia by “portraying Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors and sharing false claims about neo-Nazi control of the Ukrainian government.” Sarah Cook, a China expert at Freedom House, notes that Chinese state media companies have supported Russia’s invasion by launching a global media “campaign to shape public opinion and internet chatter about events unfolding thousands of miles away.” The Alliance for Securing Democracy, an NGO that tracks Chinese and Russian disinformation, notes that CGTN and the Global Times – two large Chinese media companies – both “accused the United States of fanning the flames of war in Ukraine.”
In fact, Chinese state media companies have a much bigger global presence than either RT or Sputnik. In 2009, then-President Hu Jintao promised to spend 45 billion renminbi ($9.3 billion) on a major media expansion campaign. Since then, the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have expanded several global media organizations that they control, including the China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Daily, People’s Daily, China Radio International (CRI), and Xinhua News Agency.
CGTN operates TV channels in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian that are available in more than 170 countries. CGTN “claims to be broadcasting to 1.2 billion people,” which would make it the world’s largest television network. The China Daily Group publishes a total of 16 newspapers in China, Hong Kong, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America with a total circulation of 900,000 daily newspapers. People’s Daily, the official “mouthpiece” of the CCP, publishes a total of 10 newspapers, several of which are targeted to foreign audiences.
CRI operates dozens of overseas radio stations. It “uses 44 languages in its overseas reporting work and broadcasts a daily total of 2,700-plus programming hours.” The Xinhua News Agency is the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China. It owns more than 20 newspapers and a dozen magazines and it prints in eight languages. Xinhua “launched 40 new foreign bureaus between 2009 and 2011 alone”; the number of foreign bureaus “jumped to 162 in 2017.”
In sum, Chinese state media companies are like Voice of America on steroids, controlling the flow of information to more people in more countries than Voice of America ever did.
Chinese state media companies have a major presence on U.S. social media platforms. For example, CGTN has 117 million followers on Facebook. China Daily has 104 million, Xinhua has 93 million, and People’s Daily has 85 million followers. In comparison, CNN has only 39 million Facebook followers and Fox has only 23 million. It bears emphasis that almost everyone who is consuming Chinese propaganda on Facebook is located outside China, because Facebook is banned inside China.
The stakes could not be higher. One recent report indicates that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances” have been eradicated. My new book, “Tyrants on Twitter,” demonstrates that Chinese and Russian information warfare is a major causal factor contributing to global democratic decay. Moreover, U.S. companies – including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter – are subsidizing Chinese and Russian information warfare by providing free electronic amplification services for large, global media companies controlled by the Russian government and the Chinese Communist Party.
The U.S. government has made a major strategic mistake by permitting U.S. companies to subsidize Chinese and Russian information warfare. It is time to end this misguided policy. Congress should enact legislation now to ban Chinese and Russian state media companies from all social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly active users in the United States. If Congress fails to act, Chinese and Russian state media companies will continue to exploit U.S. social media platforms to spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine. Moreover, Chinese and Russian information warfare will continue to feed ongoing democratic decay and the corresponding global rise of authoritarian governance.