Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propagandists have blunted anti-Chinese sentiment in Solomon Islands and boosted criticism of Australia and the West by spreading false narratives about last year’s riots in the capital Honiara and the country’s subsequent security pact with China. A new Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report reveals the co-ordinated Chinese disinformation campaign gained traction with print and social media claims that Australia, the US and Taiwan instigated the riots, and the security agreement was a necessary response to “colonialist bullies”. The CCP narratives were most successful when deployed with the support of Solomon Islands media outlets and trusted local actors, the report states. It found the Chinese embassy in Honiara played a key role in the influence operation, exerting pressure on editors and journalists to run favourable coverage and suppress stories that run counter to Beijing’s line.
Its narrative was reinforced through training courses and sponsored trips to China for local journalists. “This report highlights an emerging and continuously developing Chinese state information capability in Solomon Islands,” the ASPI International Cyber Security Centre report said. “That capability can be deployed to support the CCP’s objectives, which include undermining Solomon Islands’ existing relationships with foreign partners, particularly Australia and the US.” The authors analysed posts on Facebook, the country’s main social media platform, in the weeks after the November Honiara riots and the leaking in March of the controversial security agreement between China and Solomon Islands. They identified Facebook accounts that appeared to have been created to push pro-CCP messages, including the “Understanding China” page with 1000 members.
The researchers found articles published in local media at the instigation of CCP officials, including opinion pieces and articles based on press releases, were the most effective method of propagating pro-CCP narratives among Solomon Islands’ Facebook users. There was a “strong correlation” between such statements and the rise in anti-Western sentiment, with about 27% of anti-Western articles using CCP-style language accusing Australia and the US of “threatening, controlling or bullying” the Solomons. They included a Chinese embassy statement after the riots citing a phone call between Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi claiming “forces with ulterior motives” wanted to “smear the relationship” between the countries. Negative Facebook comments about China dropped from 75% to 57% in the following period, while positive comments rose from 19% to 32%.
Negative comments about the West rose from zero to 7%. In the period after the leaking of the security agreement and a visit by US diplomat Kurt Campbell, China’s embassy released a statement objecting to third-party “interference” in security co-operation between the countries. Anti-China comments subsequently declined from 49% to 29%. Pro-China comments rose from 3% to 12%, while anti-Western comments rose from zero to 18%. Australia and US officials had far less success than their Chinese counterparts in generating pro-Western coverage in local media outlets, the report found. “In the 3 local media outlets examined, there were more than twice the number of articles based on Chinese press releases and opinion pieces, compared to Australia and the US combined,” it said. The authors urged Australia to train Pacific journalists to make them more resilient to false narratives from Beijing sources.
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