Apr 7, 2022 - World

Inside China’s Olympic influencer campaign

Illustration of a series of magnifying glasses in the shape of the Olympics logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Chinese government financed a $300,000 social media influencer campaign that reached millions of Americans — featuring a U.S. Paralympic athlete and a "Real Housewives" reality TV star — to promote this year's Beijing Olympics, new records show.

Why it matters: Beijing's efforts to influence U.S. public opinion are under scrutiny over concerns about propaganda and misinformation.

  • The payments were disclosed via Foreign Agents Registration Act filings and influencer posts were marked as ads. Still, social media users are frequently unaware of the sources of funds for that sort of sponsored content.
  • The Olympic marketing campaign came amid widespread diplomatic boycotts of the Games over China's repression of religious and ethnic minorities. The Biden administration has formally dubbed treatment of Chinese Uyghurs a genocide.

Details: The American consultant behind the marketing campaign, Vipp Jaswal, insists his work was designed to unify in spite of political rancor.

  • "I'm a patriot. I've done a lot of work for the United States National Guard," Jaswal told Axios in an interview Wednesday. "I would never do anything to jeopardize my fellow citizens and patriots."

The details: The Chinese consulate in New York paid Jaswal's firm Vippi Media $300,000 for the influencer marketing campaign, according to FARA filings.

  • Jaswal worked with a prominent marketing firm, Viral Nation, that enlisted 11 brands and influencers to promote the Olympics on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
  • They included U.S. Paralympics swimmer Jessica Long, "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Crystal Kung Minkoff and prominent influencer Anna Sitar.
  • Other creators were picked with an eye toward specific audiences, including LGBT Americans and Chinese Americans, Jaswal said.
  • The creators crafted videos promoting the Olympics tailored to their specific audiences and were given little direction or instruction, Jaswal said.

What they're saying: A representative for Long told Axios she participated as a way of promoting fellow U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

  • "For us, it was a campaign to basically to be able to support her fellow team members and Team USA and highlight and showcase that," Ian Beck of the Olympus Sports Group told Axios in an interview.
  • None of the other creators mentioned in Vippi Media's filing responded to requests for comment.
  • Viral Nation also did not respond to inquiries, nor did the Chinese consulate.

By the numbers: According to Jaswal's FARA filing, the campaign generated 3.8 million impressions.

  • He told Axios the response to its content was largely positive, with a sentiment analysis showing 72% of reactions were positive, exceeding what, he said, is the industry standard of 61%.
  • "The media were more negatively biased than the mainstream population" about the Olympics, he said.

Flashback: Though the identities if the influencers weren’t known until this week, Vippi Media's initial disclosure last December that he would take part in the Olympics marketing campaign sparked intense backlash in Washington.

  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote to Newsweek magazine, where Jaswal was a contributor, asking it to "reconsider its relationship" with him.
  • Jaswal said he received death threats after the disclosure of the marketing campaign.
  • He described the criticism as an attempt at "literally lynching me by media by creating a media firestorm ... without having seen a single piece of content."
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