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China’s YouTube Propaganda in Latin America 

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China’s YouTube Propaganda in Latin America 

The efforts are obvious, but many of the videos fail to garner significant attention.

China’s YouTube Propaganda in Latin America 
Credit: Depositphotos

The dissemination of propaganda across Latin America by “anti-Western” nations, including Russia, Venezuela, and Iran, is the topic of much research. Local citizens are exposed to messages in their native language, which try to appeal to local concerns, amplify useful narratives, and relativize the success of the propagandist regimes while underestimating and criticizing the performance of democracies. 

China is no exception to this trend; it operates several channels under the umbrella of the China Media Group (CMG). Beijing has invested significant resources in enhancing its traditional and digital presence in recent years. COVID-19 provided further incentives for China to increase content outputs across its network to counter criticisms regarding the origin of the pandemic. 

Now that audiences are prioritizing the internet as their main information source, propagandists have found an attractive new window for dissemination in internet platforms. YouTube, the world’s most popular video streaming platform, hosts several channels owned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These channels repost programs from TV channels and create new content for the digital audience. 

However, unlike China’s propaganda in printed media, X (formerly known as Twitter), and digital websites, the impact of these CCP-owned Spanish language channels on YouTube hasn’t been analyzed in-depth. This has created a gap in knowledge regarding the actual impact these propaganda campaigns have. 

In our recently published report titled “China Media Group en Español: Analyzing Chinese State Media’s Presence on Spanish-speaking YouTube,” we focused on the three most significant Spanish-language CMG channels – CGTN, Hola China, and Xinhua – to examine whether they have a consistent impact on their intended audience. The research shines additional light on how Chinese state media operates across platforms and identifies phenomena that are relevant to the study of transnational propaganda. 

Telling China’s Story Well, But Adapting to the Public

Chinese state media share a common objective – the directive from top leader Xi Jinping to “tell China’s story well,” which refers to using these channels to portray a positive image or to build public opinion that aligns with Beijing’s perspective. As a result, out of the around 5,000 videos per channel that we analyzed,  the words “China,” “President Xi,” and “Beijing” were unsurprisingly the most predominant. Nevertheless, there are differences between channels. 

CGTN en Español is heavily focused on posting videos, sometimes around a thousand a month, making it the most prolific international network on Spanish-speaking platforms, surpassing CNN, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle. However, CGTN is also focused on international affairs and rarely covers issues related to Latin America. 

On the other hand, Xinhua Español posts fewer videos but is heavily involved with local affairs and interacts with local sources. Xinhua Español focuses on local audiences and collaborates with regional governments to share press releases and public statements. During the pandemic, this was a key element in covering the Sinovac vaccination campaign. 

Finally, Hola China has changed strategies and currently focuses on “long format” dramas, documentaries, and materials produced in China that are subsequently translated into Spanish. This last channel also showed recurrent inactivity periods that lasted up to two years. 

In terms of impact, similar to previous studies on China’s international media efforts, we found there is a dissonance between the messages the channels push forward and what the public consumes. More than 70 percent of the 15,000 videos analyzed in this report garnered less than 500 views, which is significant considering that each had between 79,000 and almost 599,000 followers. In other words, most of the published videos remain largely unwatched. 

An individual analysis of 2023’s most-watched videos showed that overall audiences are more interested in cultural affairs, as well as crises that involve the region, such as the migration-related tensions in the Mexico border or the fentanyl crisis in the United States. 

When only checking those videos that garnered more than 10,000 views in the sample, results also show the preferences of the public. In the case of CGTN, the biggest channel, the most popular videos were related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict rather than any of the CMG’s main agendas. 

In the case of Xinhua, the channel invested its resources in pushing forward news on vaccination campaigns in different countries in Latin America. Those videos were also the most watched of the sample, and the country that resonated the most with the audience was Chile, even though the channel often mentions Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba. In other words, Xinhua could have been relatively successful in shaping the region’s opinions on China’s role during the pandemic. This is particularly relevant since most of the evidence of these channels sharing conspiracy videos was also related to the pandemic  – although this form of disinformation was scattered and sporadic. 

Another relevant issue that we identified is the way the CMG cooperates with foreign media systems to share content. Xinhua Español videos displayed watermarks from various regional governments, including Mexico and Cuba. Official press releases from these Latin American entities were similarly edited and narrated for Xinhua’s channel.

On the other hand, evidence shows that, in 2023, CGTN en Español helped Russia amplify its narratives and spread content regarding the invasion of Ukraine, including airing footage from Russian state media, thereby helping them bypass a YouTube ban imposed after the war’s outbreak. This was done, for example, by “interviewing” Russia Today’s journalists, therefore providing them with direct access to their network. On other occasions, CGTN en Español would also rephrase official statements from the Russian government. 

Further Research Needed in China’s Spanish-speaking YouTube Propaganda

Official Chinese media outlets adapt and try to occupy spaces to further their reach, as any news network does. Even though they struggle with to impact the target audience with many of their videos, certain subjects were found to produce a narrative response from Spanish-speaking users. 

This reality requires a dual approach. On one hand, it is important not to overreact to China’s propaganda campaigns, since many are not landing or getting views. Overstating the impact of these networks does not help research, and could also have negative consequences in the future. On the other hand, since more aggressive narratives were found to garner views, it is important to keep an eye on those sensitive topics that the channels weaponize to push for specific responses.

Finally, there are still a few issues that require further investigation. First, the stories shared by Spanish-speaking influencers across various channels that cover China. These narratives mostly present positive views and overlook accusations of human rights violations in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. To better understand the perspectives that dominate this audience, a comparison of discourses between channels discussing these contentious topics will be helpful. This is because there are not many critics of China on YouTube who use Spanish as their primary language. Second, It would be worth analyzing the use of artificial intelligence tools in the production of the videos, such as scripts produced by large language models or text-to-speech tools.