A case of alignment between Chinese state-funded university and fringe news targeting the United States
In light of the recent revelations that divisive and inflammatory websites and Facebook pages were run out of Russia ahead and after the 2016 United States presidential election, journalists and researchers have paid little attention to biased news websites targeting audiences in the U.S. run out of countries other than Russia.
One such case study is 4thmedia.org, a China-based media outlet run by Kiyul Chung, a visiting professor at China’s Tsinghua University’s Journalism and Communication School in Beijing. The media outlet does operate in what seems to be an official connection to state university, but it is not clear whether the Chinese Communist Party is connected to the 4th Media.
What is 4th Media
4thmedia.org started out as antiCNN.com, a Chinese youth website launched in 2008 by a Tsinghua University graduate Rao Jin, who in 2015 spoke at a Communist Youth League of China event and worked with a Communist Party-sponsored rap group named CD Rev. The antiCNN.com website was created in response to what the website’s creators perceived as biased and prejudiced reporting on unrest in Tibet by Western media outlets. AntiCNN.com amassed significant support in China and, according to the website’s managers, grew from 100,000 to 100 million monthly visitors in less than two years.
In 2010, Rao Jin returned to his alma mater, Tsinghua University, to capitalize on the success of antiCNN.com and create a “global media” brand. This is how 4thmedia.org was born. Its domain was registered at the Tsinghua University and information about the site is shared on the official website of the state-funded university.
4th Media is referenced in Professor Kiyul Chung’s biography page on Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communications website, which presumably indicates the university is aware of this media outlet being run by university staff.
Public universities in China have a complicated relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. The relative freedom of thought universities had enjoyed started fading in 2012 with the election of Xi Jinping. In 2016, President Xi Jinping said universities must become Communist Party’s strongholds and adhere to the correct political orientation. A year later, universities that did not comply started facing the consequences. Shantou University, known for its international outlook, received criticism from Communist Party inspectors for doing “a poor job of toeing the ideological line.”
It is, therefore, unsurprising that Tsinghua University’s Journalism and Communications School is openly supporting the communication goals of the Communist Party of China (CPC) with the Welcome Letter from the Dean stating that the school will train China’s journalistic talent to help advance the communication goals put forward at the Sixth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012.
Tsinghua University is also making headway in establishing an exchange of media practices with Russia. Back in 2015, Associate Dean Professor Shi Anbin was part of CPC’s delegation to attend the Russia-China media forum in St. Petersburg.
In his keynote speech delivered at the China-Russia media forum in, Professor Anbin noted that:
Since the beginning of the 21st century, both China and Russia have gained some experience in the advantages of developing a new media platform to enhance their national soft power; their cooperation and exchange perspectives have widened.
In this age of flourishing media development, whether its enhancing the cultural soft power of both countries, or establishing a new order of fairer and more reasonable international news and information dissemination, China and Russia’s cooperation in this field has great significance.
4thmedia.org appears to do just that. The majority of its content are articles re-published from American fringe media outlets, with a focus on the U.S. domestic affairs. The website also has a separate section dedicated to 9/11 conspiracy theories.
The website’s content hues toward a strong anti-Western bias, characterized by hostility towards NATO and neoliberalism, the tenets of which include the free market, deregulation, liberal international order, and democratic freedoms.
4thmedia.org also appears to be sympathetic towards North Korea. Recent articles on the North Korea crisis attempt to portray the country as a victim of Western media’s saber rattling.
Apart from that, the 4th Media organizes study tours to North Korea. The tour descriptions include promises to meet “some [North Korean] senior government/party officials.” One of the participants of the latest tour penned an article on his visit published by the 4th Media shortly after the trip. The article is highly positive of North Korea, using phrases like:
Not once did I ever feel restricted or policed.
The military is present, but you see them doings things like picking up trash or working on construction projects, and you don’t see them carrying assault rifles, or any weapons for that matter.
Women and children walk the streets alone and confidently at any hour of the day.
The author was also critical of the U.S. government:
Meanwhile, the U.S. government wants to make up my mind for me…as soon as we landed the hegemonic U.S. narrative about the country began to crumble.
4th Media’s coverage of North Korea and the takeaways from its organized study tour, coincides with the official CPC’s narrative on North Korea, calling for dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea and cautioning against preemptive military action.
Apart from positive stories on North Korea and 9/11 conspiracy theories, 4th media reposts articles from state-funded media outlets, whose messaging routinely matches that of the governments which fund them, namely Iran’s Press TV, Syria’s SANA, and Russia’s RT, as well as several Russia-based think tanks.
In fact, 4th Media is advertised on the website of a Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) — run by Yuri Prokofiev, a former head of Moscow’s Communist Party and member of the Soviet Politburo. The advertisement features the logo of the 4th Media at the bottom of the site, along with the logo of GlobalResearch.ca, a media outlet which @DFRLab repeatedly reported on and remains involved in spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation.
Similarly, at the bottom of the 4th Media website, several logos are featured including state-sponsored media outlets, whose messaging routinely matches that of the governments which fund them, as well as the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation.
Even though the logos are featured prominently side by side, there is no publicly available information about the relationship between 4th Media and Strategic Culture Foundation. However, 4th Media reposts a significant amount of content verbatim from SCF.
Although it is not clear whether the Chinese Communist Party is aware of the 4th Media, considering China’s strict online censorship laws, it remains unlikely 4th Media could operate for seven years without knowledge, or perhaps tacit endorsement, from China’s media watchdogs.
4thmedia.org reveals the potential China and its netizens have to become another tour de force in leveraging their command of social and digital media to communicate the “new world order” they advocate for.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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