“People's Daily has the second largest number of Facebook likes among global media outlets,” boasted Lu Xinning, the deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, during the recent China-Russia Media Forum.
Though Facebook, along with a number of popular social media platforms including Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, is blocked in China, the newspaper currently has 5.5 million likes on Facebook, a few million behind The New York Times but more than the Washington Post by 2.2 million. Lu Xinning cited the number of Facebook likes as an evidence of People's Daily's successful integration of conventional media and new media and of its global reach.
The newspaper's page, which has been active on Facebook since mid-2011, mainly promotes its English-language stories. Recent stories — on topics such as erosion of the Great Wall of China, a budding architect's beer-bottle house, or a Chinese government report on the “terrible” human rights situation in the United States — have received hundreds, if not thousands of likes and a good number of comments and shares.
In April 2013, the page only had 1,000 likes, but by July 2014 it was celebrating 1 million. Since Lu's comment, the page has received a spate of negative reviews from people questioning the current high count.
Many Chinese netizens who cannot access Facebook were left scratching their heads over who the millions of fans are. Some wondered if a portion were simply robots or zombies (accounts that remain open, but the user no longer actively maintains), common on Chinese social media platforms.
Commenting on popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, “Alexander the super wanderer” asked People's Daily to educate people on how to access Facebook:
Can the People's Daily tell us how to follow you on Facebook? We have to outnumber our enemy paper, The New York Times.
Art curator Yong Jian claimed that he had no idea what Facebook is:
Only now do I learn something called Facebook exists. The People's Daily told me by saying that it has 4 million plus fans there. I have no idea what kind of book this Facebook is and I don't know how to read this book. If the People's Daily has so many followers there, its must have great impact.
Many netizens also noted that the number of “likes” cannot reflect the impact of a Facebook page. It is the engagement level that matters. Reuuter compared engagement levels between People's Daily and Japanese nude model Sola Aoi on Weibo:
The People's Daily goes global and now becomes the second largest in the world in terms of Facebook followers. It certainly lights up the country's face. But its impact is not as big as Sola Aoi. While the People's Daily has 36.14 million fans and Sola Aoi only has 15.87 million, the number of shares and likes in each of her messages is 10 times more than the People's Daily.
Though many tossed about suspicions that People's Daily bought Facebook likes from a social media marketing agency, “Thousands of Stars” believed the phenomena has to do with the “abstract” patriotism of Chinese who live overseas:
Actually, the Chinese living in the US are the genuine patriots. They love their homeland in abstract, with a vague impression of the country's landscape and folk culture. Patriotism like this is a form of nostalgia. They have no idea that the rice fields have been abandoned, rivers have been polluted. They have no experience with bureaucratic power, ugly systems, heavy taxation and difficult living. Those overseas Chinese who like People's Daily are most likely these kinds of people.