How the CCP is influencing Solomon Islands’ information environment
What’s the problem?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attempting to influence public discourse in Solomon Islands through coordinated information operations that seek to spread false narratives and suppress information on a range of topics. Following the November 2021 Honiara riots and the March 2022 leaking of the China – Solomon Islands security agreement, the CCP has used its propaganda and disinformation capabilities to push false narratives in an effort to shape the Solomon Islands public’s perception of security issues and foreign partners. In alignment with the CCP’s regional security objectives, those messages have a strong focus on undermining Solomon Islands’ existing partnerships with Australia and the US.
Although some of the CCP’s messaging occurs through routine diplomatic engagement, there’s a coordinated effort to influence the population across a broad spectrum of information channels. That spectrum includes Chinese party-state media, CCP official-led statements and publications in local and social media, and the amplification of particular individual and pro-CCP content via targeted Facebook groups.
There’s now growing evidence to suggest that CCP officials are also seeking to suppress information that doesn’t align with the party-state’s narratives across the Pacific islands through the coercion of local journalists and media institutions.
What’s the solution?
The Australian Government should coordinate with other foreign partners of Solomon Islands, including the US, New Zealand, Japan and the EU, to further assist local Pacific media outlets in hiring, training and retaining high-quality professional journalists. A stronger, more resilient media industry in Solomon Islands will be less vulnerable to disinformation and the pressures exerted by local CCP officials.
Social media companies need to provide, in national Pacific languages, contextual information on misinformation and label state affiliations on messages from state-controlled entities. Social media companies could encourage civil society to report state affiliations and provide evidence to help companies enforce their policies.
Further government funding should be used to support public research into actors and activities affecting the Pacific islands’ information environment, including foreign influence, the proliferation of disinformation on topics such as climate change, and election misinformation. That research should be used to assist in building media resiliency in Pacific island countries by providing information and targeted training to media professionals to assist in identifying disinformation and aspects of coordinated information operations. Sharing that information with civil-society groups and institutions across the region, such as the Pacific Fusion Centre, can also help to improve regional media literacy and understanding of information operations as a cybersecurity issue.
Pacific island countries will need support as great-power competition intensifies in the region. The US, for example, can do more to demonstrate that the CCP’s narratives are false, such as proving Washington’s genuine interest in supporting the region by answering the call of the local Solomon Islands population to do more to clean up remaining unexploded World War II ordnance on Guadalcanal. ASPI has also previously proposed that an Indo-Pacific hybrid threats centre would help regional governments, business and civil society to understand the threat landscape, develop resilience against online harms and counter malign activity.1 It would contribute to regional stability by promoting confidence-building measures, including information-sharing and capacity-building mechanisms.
This report explores how the CCP is using a range of influence channels to shape, promote and suppress messages in the Solomon Islands information environment. Through an examination of CCP online influence in the aftermath of the Honiara riots in late 2021 and in response to the leaked security agreement in March 2022, this report demonstrates a previously undocumented level of coordination across a range of state activities. As part of a wider shift in ASPI’s research on foreign interference and disinformation, this report also seeks to measure the impact of those efforts in shaping public sentiment and opinion, and we welcome feedback on those methods. The data collected in this project doesn’t provide an exhaustive record of all CCP influence tactics and channels in Solomon Islands but provides a snapshot of activity in relation to the two key case studies.
In this paper, we use the term ‘China’ to refer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an international actor, ‘Chinese Government’ or ‘Chinese state’ to refer to the bureaucracy of the government of the PRC, and ‘Chinese Communist Party’ or ‘party-state’ to refer to the regime that monopolises state power in the PRC.
Data collection for this case study covered two discrete periods. The first collection period was for 12 weeks from the beginning of the riots on 24 November (referred to in tables and charts as the Honiara riots case study), and the second period was for six weeks from the leaking of the China – Solomon Islands security agreement on 24 March (referred to as the security agreement case study).2 The analytical methods used included quantitative analysis of publicly available data from a range of sources, including articles from Solomon Islands media outlets, articles from party-state media and Facebook posts in public groups and local media pages based in Solomon Islands. For the purpose of the analysis, any article with more than 80% of its content derived from local or foreign government official sources (direct quotes or statements from diplomatic officials, ministers or embassies, for example) was categorised as an ‘official-led’ article. Examples of such content included editorials, media releases and articles that prominently relied on direct quotes. This data was collected systematically for quantitative and qualitative analysis and was strengthened by deeper investigation into some public Facebook groups and activity. This approach drew upon a previously published framework, titled ‘information influence and interference’, used to understand strategy-driven, state-sponsored information activities.3
We conducted a simple categorical sentiment analysis of social media posts as a measure of the effectiveness of CCP influence efforts. We analysed comments from Facebook posts published by three leading media outlets in Solomon Islands (The Solomon Star, The Island Sun and the Solomon Times) for the two events investigated for this research report. We also analysed comments from posts by the Chinese Embassy in Solomon Islands’ Facebook page, as well as posts in public Pacific island Facebook pages and groups that shared links to party-state media. Relevant comments were categorised as being positive (pro) or negative (anti) towards a particular country or group, such as ‘the West’, which had to be explicitly stated in the comment. Comments that referred to more than one grouping (China, the West, or the Solomon Islands Government) were categorised for analytical purposes based on the dominant subject of the comment. Our initial data collection also sought to analyse information relating to New Zealand, the UK and Japan, but that was prevented by the lack of reporting and online discussion focused on those countries (in this data-collection period, only one article each from New Zealand and Japan were identified).
- This report highlights an emerging and continuously developing Chinese state information capability in Solomon Islands. 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.
- Local media outlets have the highest level of online penetration and engagement in Solomon Islands. CCP official-led articles published in local media—including opinion pieces, press releases and other quote-based articles—are the most effective method of propagating CCP narratives in Solomon Islands’ online information environment.
- Party-state media articles produced by outlets such as the Global Times and the People’s Daily, although useful in highlighting CCP narratives, had little impact on and penetration into the Solomon Islands’ online information environment. They were rarely shared in public Facebook groups and, when they were shared, received mostly anti-China comments in response. Unlike CCP media releases and editorials published in local media, party-state media articles were rarely republished by local media outlets, which favoured content from Western media sources independent of state control, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
- Our research included customised sentiment analysis, which categorised Facebook comments as positive or negative towards a subject country, and showed that the most common social media comments relating to the two events investigated were negative towards China and the Solomon Islands Government. However, there was an overall decline in anti-China Facebook commentary and an increase in pro-China and anti-West commentary in the weeks following the Honiara riots and the leaked China – Solomon Islands security agreement.
- Analysis of the anti-West online commentary following the leaked security agreement suggests that the local population used language featured in the CCP’s narrative, such as ‘bullying’, equally as much as language from local politicians who were independently critical of the US for doing ‘too little, too late’ and failing to address the issue of unexploded ordnance on Guadalcanal.
- The Chinese Embassy has strong connections to several media outlets in Solomon Islands. Across the Pacific, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that Chinese diplomats exert pressure to influence local publications and control press releases in support of the CCP’s narratives. This suppressive activity probably plays a key role in the CCP’s information operations.4
- A Facebook group in Solomon Islands, created just after the riots and now with more than 1,000 followers, is being used to amplify party-state media articles. Articles in this group aim to promote the benefits of engaging with China at the expense of other foreign partnerships, although connections between the operation and the ownership of those pages are unknown.
- Some Solomon Islands decision-makers and journalists were found to have connections to the China – Solomon Islands Friendship Association. Many of those individuals have shared messages in the media that align with the CCP’s narratives and objectives in Solomon Islands, and the relationship between friendship associations and CCP narratives across the Pacific should be investigated further.
The Solomon Islands online information environment
Internet connectivity and social media use in Solomon Islands are growing rapidly. Data released by Kepios in February 2022 shows that, of the more than 712,000 people in Solomon Islands, nearly 72% had a cellular mobile phone connection, just over 32% (229,500) used the internet, and 20% (142,900) were active social media users.5 Since 2017, the total number of internet users in Solomon Islands has more than doubled, and the number of active social media users has nearly tripled. In fact, the overall number of people who receive online information through the sharing of devices is likely to be far greater than represented. Given Solomon Islands’ limited internet connectivity in remote areas, most internet and social media users are likely to be based in Honiara. The level of access to online information and social media is expected to increase greatly over the next decade as the construction of 161 4G towers across the country progresses.6
Facebook dominates the online environment in Solomon Islands. It’s the number 1 searched term in the country, and Meta’s advertising resources estimate that Facebook ads can reach 19.3% of the total population. In comparison, Twitter and Instagram are estimated to reach 0.2% and 0.9%, respectively.7
Traditional media outlets in Solomon Islands have a significant presence and followership on Facebook, and the largest outlets are followed by more than a quarter of Solomon Islands’ total social media users. However, many of those news outlets don’t publish all printed articles online, and some outlets don’t share links to all online content on their Facebook pages.
Independently operated aggregate news pages and local discussion groups also share content from several local news sources and have equivalent or greater followership in many countries across the Pacific. Opinions, and information from sources of varying legitimacy, are easily shared in public groups with little scrutiny (a problem not unique to Solomon Islands or the Pacific region). For more than a decade now, the region has relied heavily on Facebook to engage in public discourse and fill information gaps.8
China’s presence in the information environment is expanding across the region, including in Solomon Islands. The Chinese Government has provided training to local journalists both domestically and in China through funded trips—a common activity across the Pacific.9 It has also provided television programming across the region through the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) organisation, and has replaced the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on a number of shortwave radio frequencies across the region.10 However, the impact of this growing presence in the information environment—including the CCP’s use of disinformation—is largely unexplored, and hence hasn’t yet been adequately addressed by policymakers, including in the partner countries being targeted by information operations.
CCP information operations in Solomon Islands
On 24 November 2021, riots broke out in Honiara. Many factors contributed to the riots, including grievances over uneven provincial development; government corruption and nepotism; poor governance and service delivery; lack of work opportunities for a booming youth population; and concerns over growing Chinese presence and influence in the country.11 However, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who led the country in cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2019 in order to pursue a deeper partnership with the PRC, insisted that the unrest was solely about recognising the one-China policy.12 He has also claimed that other foreign powers were interfering in Solomon Islands’ politics by influencing and encouraging groups from the island of Malaita to challenge the national government.13
The one-China policy
For the PRC, the ‘one China principle’ stipulates that ‘Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.’ The PRC has established diplomatic relations with other governments on the condition that they recognise that principle and either ‘sever or do not establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan’s authorities’.14 Every government that has diplomatic ties with the PRC has a ‘one-China policy’ that recognises or acknowledges the PRC Government as the only legal ‘government of China’. However, it’s important to note that each country has its own one-China policy and that those policies aren’t always the same as the PRC’s one-China principle. In fact, many, like Australia’s one-China policy, deliberately introduced ambiguity and flexibility into the agreed language.15 After Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China in 2019, four island governments still recognise Taiwan (the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu). As Solomon Islands demonstrates, the China–Taiwan contest has become a significant element in the domestic politics of many South Pacific states.
Following the November riots, the Chinese Embassy offered a raft of security support to Solomon Islands, including equipment and training from deployed personnel. That support wasn’t without controversy, and the introduction of People’s Armed Police training officers in Solomon Islands sparked concern from the population and the parliamentary opposition.16
Then, on 24 March, security concerns reached a new peak when an unverified draft copy of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands was leaked on social media.17
The security agreement, which was eventually signed by the Solomon Islands Government on 30 March, drew further criticism from within Solomon Islands.18 The government has so far declined to release details of the agreement to the public, although Sogavare has promised to disclose the treaty after further consultations with China.19 A spokesperson from the Chinese Embassy provided local news outlet, The Solomon Star, with Q&A responses on the security agreement, but that also lacked any details of the signed document.20
Internationally, many of Solomon Islands’ foreign partners also expressed concerns, including Australia, the US, Japan, New Zealand and the Federated States of Micronesia.21 Sogavare has remained adamant that the agreement won’t lead to a People’s Liberation Army base in Solomon Islands, but Honiara’s neighbours and close partners remain wary over the vague language used in the draft agreement.22
This report examines the role that the CCP played in influencing the Solomon Islands media and online information environment while these events were taking place, including through the propagation of false narratives.
The CCP’s narratives
Following the November 2021 riots, the CCP pushed a fabricated narrative that accused Australia, the US and Taiwan of instigating the riots, fomenting unrest, and smearing the relationship between Solomon Islands and China. The CCP had no evidence to support those claims but sought to use those falsehoods to undermine the relationship between Solomon Islands and its other current and former foreign partners. That narrative was pushed through party-state media (both in English and in Chinese) through statements from Chinese officials that were shared by the Chinese Embassy, published in local media outlets and quoted by local journalists.
After the security agreement was leaked online in March 2022, the CCP sought to further undermine Solomon Islands’ relationships with Australia and the US. Both Australia and the US, at the time, had sought high-level meetings with Sogavare to discuss their concerns over the issue, and Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo sent a public letter to Sogavare urging him to reconsider.23 During that time, the CCP pushed a second but similarly themed narrative—that Australia and the US were colonialist bullies that were threatening Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.
Over the two time periods observed (which totalled 18 weeks), party-state media outlets—identified as PRC Government functionaries by the US State Department24—published a total of 67 articles covering events in Solomon Islands. Of those, 47 articles (70%) directly supported the CCP’s narratives in attempting to undermine Solomon Islands’ existing relationships—predominantly with the US and Australia. The remaining 30% reported on the issue without a clear agenda. Samples of the headlines are provided in Figure 1; the Global Times was the most prolific reporter on these issues.
Figure 1: Party-state media headlines about the November 2021 riots and the China – Solomon Islands security agreement
Sources: (top left) ‘Australia has fomented riots in Solomon Islands: Global Times editorial’, Global Times, 27 November 2021, online; (top right) Fan Lingzhi, Shan Jie, ‘GT investigates: Funding opposition, cultivating influence through cult—US, Taiwan island lurk in shadows of Solomon Islands riots’, Global Times, 28 November 2021, ; (centre left) Qin Yun, ‘US interference the real reason that fuels tensions in Pacific Islands’, Global Times, 27 December 2021, online; (centre right) ‘Solomon Islands not Australia’s lackey: China Daily editorial’, China Daily, 26 April 2022, online. (bottom left) Xu Keyue, Shan Jie and Bai Yunyi, ‘US’ high-level visit to Solomon Islands aims to nullify China security pact, uses region as hegemonic fulcrum’, People’s Daily Online, 20 April 2022, online; (bottom right) Chen Hong, ‘Australia, US’ flagrant interference in Solomon Islands’ security deal disregards independence’, Global Times, 12 April 2022, online.
These publications provide insight into the narratives that the CCP was pushing in the region. However, party-state media had very little penetration into Pacific islands social media during the two data-collection periods, demonstrating their limited effectiveness in independently shifting public sentiment. The 67 articles were shared only a combined 11 times on public Pacific islands Facebook pages, according to CrowdTangle data, and received a total of 90 comments in response (Table 1).
Table 1: A summary of party-state media articles in relation to Solomon Islands and engagement with CCP narratives.
Anti-China comments were the most common response on these posts (Figure 2), but there was also a high percentage of negative commentary towards the West and, unlike in other channels of information explored in detail later in this report, there was no public commentary focused on defending or supporting the West in response to this stream of party-state media reporting.
Figure 2: Sentiment of Facebook comments responding to shared party-state media articles as a percentage of total relevant comments
As well as limited penetration into social media, party-state media articles also had limited penetration in traditional media outlets. In the three examined local media outlets (The Solomon Star, the Solomon Times and The Island Sun), only one such article was directly republished. That article, republished online from the English-language website of the China News Service by the Solomon Times, accused foreign powers of having ulterior motives of smearing the relationship between China and Solomon Islands.25 In comparison, there were 15 articles from media outlets and think-tank blogs based in Australia, the US and New Zealand directly republished in Solomon Islands media that reported on the cause of the riots or the Solomon Islands – China security relationship. Those re-publications, from outlets including the ABC, Reuters, Scoop NZ and the Australian National University’s DevPolicy Blog, accounted for more than one-quarter of articles published on those topics in the three examined Solomon Islands media outlets.
CCP official statements in local media
Press releases and media statements—in this case, mostly led by PRC Ambassador to Solomon Islands Li Ming—are part of routine diplomatic behaviour. However, the consistent and persistent messaging of the CCP’s narratives, in combination with the pressure CCP officials attempt to exert on local media outlets across the Pacific, indicates that CCP statements in the local press play a key role in broader influence operations in Solomon Islands.26
A key way the CCP promotes its narratives online in Solomon Islands is through Facebook posts via the Chinese Embassy. However, Embassy Facebook posts, similarly to party-state media posts, had limited penetration and attracted little engagement. In contrast, official-led opinion pieces and press releases (used and quoted in local media) were found to be the most effective method of engaging with the population and penetrating the online information environment with CCP narratives. Those statements, published and shared online via local news Facebook pages, reached larger audiences and generated more responses than party-state media articles or statements posted by the Chinese Embassy in Solomon Islands’ Facebook page. The articles were also more frequent (Figure 3), and generated greater engagement (Table 2) than similar US and Australia official-led articles in Solomon Islands media.
Figure 3: Count of published official-led articles that were primarily based on quotes, press releases or editorials provided by government officials
Table 2: Count of Facebook posts and responding Facebook comments underneath official-led articles, including official-authored editorials, press releases and articles directly quoting foreign official statements in Solomon Islands media
In the three local media outlets examined, there were more than twice the number of published official-led articles based on Chinese press releases, published statements and opinion pieces, compared to Australia and the US combined. In the Honiara riots case study, CCP official-led articles generated significantly more engagement through Facebook commentary on shared articles than the US and nearly as much as Solomon Islands Government statements. However, in the security agreement case study, engagement on CCP official-led articles was only a quarter of the engagement on Solomon Islands Government articles, and less than for US official-led articles. These differences highlight the inconsistent but sometimes high level of engagement with CCP narratives.
We’re in no way condemning routine diplomatic engagement with media, including the publication of opinion pieces and press releases, but we’re seeking to understand and characterise areas where the CCP is attempting to coerce and push false narratives to local populations—a now key component of the CCP’s public-diplomacy efforts overseas.
Ambassador Li has visited the Solomon Star, which is the country’s leading daily newspaper by circulation and online followers.27 Following the visit, the Chinese Embassy stated that it was ‘willing to actively promote the “Star”’, and ‘it hoped that The Star will give full play to its advantages and tell more and better stories about the friendship between China and Solomon Islands.’28
This activity is in line with efforts by Chinese diplomats across the region to promote messages that align with the CCP’s pro-China and anti-Western narratives. There’s also a growing body of evidence that suggests that Chinese diplomats contribute to CCP information operations not just by pushing pro-China and anti-West CCP narratives but by suppressing information in the Pacific that runs counter to the CCP’s goals.
The Chinese Embassy has reportedly pressured local media outlets, for example, to moderate their content to ensure that it aligns with the CCP’s desired image that it wants portrayed to the region—a behaviour that’s also been reported elsewhere in the Pacific by journalists wishing to expose the CCP’s ‘corrupt and exploitative’ actions.29
In May 2022, when PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Solomon Islands to sign a series of agreements, the Chinese Embassy also sought to control the press conference by forbidding local journalists from asking questions of the Foreign Minister and allowing only selected local media outlets to attend. The Media Association of Solomon Islands elected to boycott the event as a demonstration of defending democracy and journalistic professionalism.30
This attempt to control local media in the Pacific and suppress information that doesn’t align with the CCP’s narratives, while simultaneously seeking to amplify CCP-backed narratives, demonstrates the dual-track approach taken to influence Solomon Islands’ information environment.
CCP messaging through local actors
In addition to CCP official-led statements and articles in local media, several reports and statements made by local journalists and politicians also supported the CCP’s narratives. The use of local actors to push CCP narratives is an area of concern that warrants further investigation, as they’re likely to be more trusted by the population as credible sources of information.
On 17 December, journalist and former Solomon Islands politician Alfred Sasako reported that Taiwan was responsible for inciting the riots in an article published in The Solomon Star.31 The article provided unsubstantiated claims and quotes from a ‘writer using the name of George Belau’ and was the only article produced by the examined local media that suggested Taiwan was responsible for instigating unrest.
Alfred Sasako is currently also the vice president of the Solomon Islands China Friendship Association, which is an organisation that falls under the CCP’s network of political influence work (see box).32 To be clear: there’s no evidence to suggest that Sasako was asked or paid to publish the article. However, he has previously been accused of spreading Chinese propaganda and misinformation about the US by multiple Solomon Islands media outlets, including The Solomon Star prior to his employment.33
Chinese friendship associations and CCP political influence
The Solomon Islands China Friendship Association (SICFA), established in 2016,34 is one of the 15 members of the Pacific China Friendship Association (PCFA, 太平洋中国友好协会).35 The PCFA was established in 2016 by the then President and Party Secretary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC, 中国人民对外友好协会), Li Xiaolin (李小林), as a partner association.36 Among the PCFA’s official aims are to ‘regularly disseminate information between Members regarding regional matters and China’ and to ‘correct misunderstandings, inaccuracies or misleading information published about any Member or China.’37 The CPAFFC is a party-state organ, managed by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of ‘unofficial diplomacy’, the aim of which is to assist in promoting CCP policy goals via political influence through non-state channels overseas.38 The activities of the CPAFFC in the region have included the provision of pandemic fighting resources, scholarships and capacity building for other ‘friendly’ organisations.39
Previous analysis of China’s ‘friendship’ groups has brought to light many of the ways in which they operate within the country’s broader political influence operations, and how they have active links with CCP agencies such as the International Liaison and United Front Work departments, as well as the propaganda apparatus, among others, effectively acting as agents of the party-state.40 In the past few years, as noted by Professor Anne-Marie Brady, the PCFA and its associates have been active, particularly in promoting activities that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.41
Another influential Solomon Islands powerbroker with connections to SICFA and its subnational subsidiaries is Anthony Veke, who is the president of the Guadalcanal–Guangdong Friendship Association (瓜达尔卡纳尔省-广东友好协会) and the current Minister for Police, National Security and Correctional Services.42 Minister Veke has made statements to the media that reflect some of the CCP’s narrative of blaming ‘forces with ulterior motives’. Following his criticism of Federated States of Micronesia President Panuelo’s letter to request that Solomon Islands withdraw from the security deal with China, Veke has encouraged the people of Solomon Islands to unite ‘rather than being brain-washed to promote the interest of outside forces during these trying times’.43
Understanding these ‘unofficial’ and people-to-people relationships between the Chinese party-state and locals in other countries is fundamental to assessing the extent of the CCP’s influence. What we point to in Solomon Islands may reflect a broad projection of influence that deserves more attention. The impact of the connections between influential individuals in Solomon Islands and SICFA also warrants further investigation.
CCP positive propaganda
As part of its broader influence strategy, the CCP seeks to promote itself positively to the Solomon Islands population and, as for all governments, much of that effort is conducted through routine diplomatic activity and is standard public diplomacy practice. However, there are some individual Facebook accounts and Facebook pages that lack clarity about their ownership and origins but appear to have been created to amplify party-state media articles and pro-CCP content in Solomon Islands.
The ‘Solomon Island for China’ Facebook group, for example, was created on 1 December 2021, after the Honiara riots. The group purports to present a ‘balanced view’ of China but mostly shares party-state media articles, links to other pro-CCP Facebook groups (such as ‘Understanding China’) and articles critical of the US Government. By 25 August 2022, the group had more than 1,000 members.44 One of the most active accounts in the group is a profile named ‘Babarosi Babaka’, whose earliest Facebook activity was on 15 January 2022.45 Since joining the ‘Solomon Island for China’ group on 29 January 2022, ‘Babarosi Babaka’ has mostly posted content from the ‘Economic Daily, China’ and posts in the ‘Understanding China’ group (see Figure 4 for examples).
Figure 4: Screenshots from ‘Solomon Island for China’ public Facebook page
Sources: left, ‘Solomon Island for China’, Facebook, online; right, ‘Solomon Island for China’, Facebook,online.
Measuring the effectiveness of CCP online influence operations
To measure the effectiveness of CCP narratives in influencing the population, we conducted a customised simple categorical sentiment analysis of more than 2,000 Facebook comments, of which 1,470 had identified positive or negative sentiment towards a foreign country, grouping (the West) or the Solomon Islands Government. The comments were in response to shared party-state media articles, posts from the Chinese Embassy and posts from the three examined local media outlets that contained information about our two topics of focus—the riots or the Solomon Islands – China security agreement.
Negative comments towards China decreased over time
Negative comments towards China or the Solomon Islands Government were the most common, accounting for more than 600 comments combined (Figure 5). Many comments that were classified as focused on the Solomon Islands Government directly raised government corruption and questioned the wisdom of having deeper engagement with China.
Figure 5: Number of comments on Facebook posts relating to the ‘Honiara riots’ and the leaked ‘security agreement’ categorised as being positive or negative towards China, the West or Solomon Islands
In both case studies, although there was high variance in the week-to-week composition of commentary, the numbers of negative comments towards China decreased over time. The figures below display the percentages of comments that were categorised as positive or negative sentiment towards China, Solomon Islands or the West each week over the recording period. Dashed lines represent weekly data; solid lines indicate the linear trend over time.
After the November 2021 Honiara riots, there was an overall decrease in negative commentary towards China and an increase in negative commentary towards the Solomon Islands Government (Figure 6). Qualitative analysis of the commentary data suggests that this was probably due to ongoing frustrations over the Solomon Islands Government’s handling of the security situation in Honiara.
Figure 6: Categorical sentiment analysis of Facebook commentary in relation to media posts on the Honiara riots (n = 456)
Note: Sentiment was recorded as being positive or negative towards China, the Solomon Islands Government, or the West. Linear trend lines indicate change over time. Dashed lines represent weekly data.
Following the leaked security agreement in late March (Figure 7), the decrease in anti-China and anti-Solomon Islands commentary coincided with a greater focus on the West and upcoming visits from Australia and the US. After the US visit was announced, negative commentary about the West increased at a much faster rate than positive commentary. The likely explanation for that difference is explored in further detail in the following section.
Figure 7: Categorical sentiment analysis of Facebook commentary in relation to media posts on the Solomon Islands – China security agreement (n = 1,014).
Note: Sentiment was recorded as being positive or negative towards China, the Solomon Islands Government, or the West. Linear trend lines indicate change over time. Dashed lines represent weekly data.
Analysing the increases in negative commentary towards the West
The figures showed a change in sentiment over time for both case studies; most noticeably, there was a decrease in anti-China sentiment. In the Honiara riots case study, the decrease in anti-China commentary led to an increase in pro-China commentary and in anti-Solomon Islands Government commentary. In the security agreement case study, the decrease in anti-China commentary was replaced mostly by anti-West commentary. The following analysis seeks to explain the differences in those shifts in sentiment in order to better understand how sentiment has been affected by particular events or avenues of influence, which is a critical component in establishing a baseline for the current effectiveness of CCP information operations.
A breakdown of the data indicates that official-led articles (CCP press releases, opinion pieces and heavily quoted articles) have a strong correlation with a decline in anti-China sentiment and a rise in anti-West sentiment. In both case studies, there was a detectable sentiment shift in the commentary responding to official-led articles after certain events took place in the recording periods.
In the Honiara riots case study, on 16 December 2021, a direct call was held between Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele and PRC State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. According to a Chinese Embassy statement, re-iterated in party-state media and republished in Solomon Islands local media, Wang and Manele spoke about the diplomatic relationship but also discussed the contention that ‘some forces with ulterior motives took the opportunity to smear the relationship between China and Solomon Islands.’46 A comparison of sentiment on official-led articles before and after the phone call was reported demonstrates a significant decrease in the percentage of anti-China commentary, which was replaced mostly with pro-China and anti-West commentary (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Sentiment of comments (displayed as a percentage of overall relevant comments) in response to CCP official statements in local media before (blue) and after (orange) the phone call between the foreign ministers was reported
Similarly, in the China – Solomon Islands security agreement case study, there was a significant shift in sentiment following the US visit to Solomon Islands on 22 April, after which PRC Ambassador Li released a statement objecting to third-party interference in the Solomon Islands – China relationship.47 That led to a decrease in the percentage of anti-China and anti-Solomon Islands Government commentary and an increase in pro-China and anti-West commentary (Figure 9). We didn’t detect any evidence to indicate that this was significantly affected by fake accounts or comments.
Figure 9: Sentiment of comments (displayed as a percentage of overall relevant comments) in response to CCP official statements in local media before (blue) and after (orange) the US Government visit to the Solomon Islands.
To determine how relevant Ambassador Li’s comments were in shaping public discourse on the US visit, we can analyse the language used in anti-West commentary and compare it to the language used by CCP officials or other groups, such as local politicians, who also probably affected public sentiment. For example, an article quoting MP Peter Kenilorea, who stated that the US was ‘too late’, and also quoting MP Danny Philip, who highlighted the ongoing issue of unexploded ordnance, gained the most online traction of any article in this case study, producing more than 800 interactions.48
In the negative commentary, the language used by CCP officials was used by the population equally as much as the language used by local MPs. Some 27% of 163 anti-West comments used language similar to that seen in the CCP narrative, about the US or Australia threatening, controlling or bullying Solomon Islands. That language was detected in Solomon Islands public discourse prior to the CCP’s narrative push, but not in such high proportions. In comparison, 28% of comments focused on the US doing too little, too late and needing to address the issue of unexploded ordnance, sharing the opinion of MPs Kenilorea and Philip. The remaining negative comments didn’t share similar enough language to be categorised as related to either official statement.
The above examples of measuring effectiveness contribute to the establishment of a measured baseline in our understanding of public sentiment and online commentary. With further research over time, this will provide a better understanding of the true effect that CCP influence operations are having on Solomon Islands sentiment. It’s also important to note that some of these influence efforts by the CCP might not be directed at the Solomon Islands public and could be targeted at foreign partners or Pacific island leaders and decision-makers.
Conclusion, policy recommendations and future research
CCP activities in the Solomon Islands information environment occur across a spectrum ranging from routine diplomatic activity through to coordinated information operations. This report highlights how routine diplomatic activity (such as the publication of op-eds and press releases) is being used in conjunction with online amplification activities to support the same overarching objectives: spreading disinformation about the origins of the Honiara riots and undermining the relationship between Solomon Islands and its traditional partners.
Our investigation examined the roles each identified channel of influence played in furthering the CCP’s core narratives following the Honiara riots. While these case studies focused on the riots and the leaked security agreement, more work is needed to investigate further CCP online influence operations in Solomon Islands and the rest of the Pacific region. In addition to those identified in the report, other channels of influence warranting further investigation include the delivery of aid and infrastructure by Chinese state-owned enterprises and the CCP’s political influence through groups such as the Solomon Islands – China Friendship Association. The presence and impact of CCP narratives and disinformation pushed through short-wave radio and TV also remain a significant research gap.
Our analysis also provides a baseline measurement of CCP activity, narratives and effectiveness in influencing the population in Solomon Islands’ online information environment. Ongoing monitoring of CCP influence operations in Solomon Islands and across the Pacific can be used to indicate changes in CCP influence tactics. Updated information on the use, penetration and effectiveness of certain channels of influence can be used to notify policymakers of the need to tailor engagement, support and training packages to better counter the evolving threat of coordinated information operations. ASPI is undertaking further research looking at that and related topics in the Pacific islands region in which we’ll include detailed policy recommendations. In the meantime, we encourage policymakers and social media platforms to consider the following:
- Many Pacific islands media outlets are facing financial hardship, making it difficult for them to train and retain high-quality journalists. That makes those institutions vulnerable to disinformation and pressures from CCP officials across the region. The Australian Government should coordinate with other foreign partners of Solomon Islands, including the US, Japan and the EU, to build resilience in Pacific media outlets and assist in hiring, training and retaining high-quality professional journalists.
- Social media companies need to provide contextual information on misinformation and label state affiliations on messages from state-controlled entities in national Pacific languages. Social media companies should encourage civil society to report state affiliations and provide evidence to help the companies enforce their policies. Facebook is the dominant social media platform in the Pacific, but other companies are likely to build greater footprints as internet access develops across the region and should be pre-emptive in addressing these issues.
- More government resources should be invested in supporting public research into actors and activities affecting the Pacific islands’ information environment, including foreign influence, the proliferation of disinformation on topics such as climate change, and election misinformation. Governments should look to fund research that will assist in building media resilience in Pacific island countries, providing information and targeted training to media professionals on identifying disinformation and aspects of coordinated information operations. Sharing that information with civil-society groups across the region can also help to improve regional media literacy.
- The Australian and US governments should provide more funding to develop their own media’s understanding of the Pacific environment and produce accurate and relevant content about the Pacific that, for example, could include funding more travel for journalists to spend time in the region. That would deepen domestic understanding of the region and improve the quality, relevance and trustworthiness of Australian and US content shared by Pacific island media outlets.
- Pacific island countries will need support as great-power competition intensifies in the region. An Indo-Pacific hybrid threats centre would help regional governments, business and civil society to understand the threat landscape, develop resilience against online harms and counter malign activity.49 It would contribute to regional stability by promoting confidence-building measures, including information-sharing and capacity-building mechanisms, working with existing institutions in the region, such as the Pacific Fusion Centre.
- Australia, the US and other like-minded partners can debunk some of the CCP’s narratives by being more transparent with their own aid and support in the region, demonstrating the legitimate benefit that’s delivered to Solomon Islands and other Pacific island countries through longstanding and new initiatives. Online content and commentary can also be used to better understand the needs of Pacific island countries, such as the public’s pleas for more extensive work to remove unexploded ordnance in Solomon Islands.
05 Oct 2022