How Propaganda Works in the Digital Era: Soft News as a Gateway

Yuner Zhu*, King Wa Fu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Digital technology can empower citizen journalism as well as state media in authoritarian regimes. China’s propaganda apparatus has undertaken a series of transformations to adapt itself to the changing media environment. This study investigates this adaptive process by drawing on over five million Weibo posts created by 103 newspapers between 2012 and 2019. Results show that through the digital transformation, newspapers are deliberately distancing themselves from their Orwellian past of abstract dogmatism to openly embrace infotainment. A soft-news-centered production model has emerged as the new journalistic paradigm on social media. Not only commercialized outlets but also mouthpiece newspapers produce more soft news than hard news. Regression results further substantiate that soft news is a gateway to propaganda, whose popularity can spill over into propaganda news. For every 100% increase in soft news popularity, propaganda popularity will rise by 38.5% in the following month. News outlets that have garnered attention to soft news can transfer that attention to their subsequent propaganda. These results illuminate how propaganda works in the digital realm, how authoritarian propaganda could be enhanced by infotainment, and why a less political platform could be more susceptible to political intervention.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalDigital Journalism
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jan 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Communication

User-Defined Keywords

  • Chinese news media
  • Digital transformation
  • popular authoritarianism
  • propaganda
  • soft news


Dive into the research topics of 'How Propaganda Works in the Digital Era: Soft News as a Gateway'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this