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China's Official Press Agency Can't Win On Twitter Because Censorship

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, January 14 2014

Who doesn't want updates on Yutu's sleeping status?!

It's not terribly surprising that Xinhua News Agency, China's official mouthpiece/press agency, doesn't “get” Twitter. Since the platform is blocked in their country, Xinhua employees can't be expected to become Twitter pros overnight. But it's been almost a year now since @XHNews opened an account; 8,242 (and counting) tweets later and they still only have 23,325 followers.

In a post on Tea Leaf Nation, Liz Carter describes their fumbled tweets as “growing pains.” She points out misspellings (“disciliponed”) and inappropriate celebrity mentions (“Tiger Woods is not an actual tiger.”).

This is pretty outrageous when one considers (as Carter points out) that China has spent billions of dollars trying to ramp up their public image abroad.

Also worth noting, since Carter posted about @XHNews on January 10, the Twitter bio of the Agency has changed. Instead of “A multimedia group, Xinhua delivers the most authoritative China news as well as updated and objective news,” it now reads, “A multimedia group, Xinhua delivers the latest China news as well as objective global news.”

Perhaps they decided that describing themselves as “authoritative” was just a little too obvious.

In an article for The Diplomat, Arthur Guschin explains why China's public relations problems run deeper than a lack of Twitter politesse and finesse:

Herein lies the problem with Chinese public diplomacy: the incompatibility of the core audience in Western countries and the information product of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This core audience consists of educated, urban people 16-35 years old who will play roles in government or business organizations. Beijing offers them programs about Chinese culture and language with ideologically driven news. However, this audience gets most of its information from the internet and social media. China, however, has strict controls over the web and blocks access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other outlets.

Moreover, the history and culture of ancient China or Confucius are unlikely to excite the interests of young people, who are more interested in what is happening in China today. Beijing is focusing solely on its culture or civilization, while overlooking current issues such as policymaking or pollution. This is an example of why it is so difficult to build a national brand using state institutions alone. Examples such as “Cool Britannia,” South Korea’s “Sparkling Korea” or Kosovo’s “Kosovo, the Young Europeans” demonstrate that high-budget advertising sponsored by a government but not connected to real people is not effective at expanding soft power. China has the financial resources to get its message out, but lacks freedom of speech, which could damage the existing vertical power structure. China’s strategy is compromised by the absence of partnerships between the government and society, businesses and individuals that could Chinese ideas in a way that is not propaganda.

So learning how and when to #hashtag or @mention someone might not solve all of @XHNews's problems after all. Because censorship.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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