Chinese-language publishing house pours out gushing praise from election candidates on WeChat. But the flattery comes with a price tag

A mysterious media agency is behind a fee-for-service offering to federal election candidates, including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, posting good news articles and interviews on the Chinese-language social media platform WeChat.

Most important points:

Australian Financial News (AFN) is one of the most prolific publishers of election content on WeChat. It has clients across the political spectrum, but Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg creates great content on the platform. His office denied paying the media agency to publish flattering editorial coverage.

Australian Financial News (AFN) has published more than 131 ads and articles related to the federal election since January, according to researchers at Deakin and Monash Universities who monitor election materials on Chinese social media.

Some of this content is presented as news articles written by independent journalists.

The ABC has discovered an AFN proposal for a political candidate that offers six weeks’ worth of advertisements for a fixed price and a video and article on WeChat.

AFN has helped at least five political campaigns from across the political spectrum advertise through WeChat to Australia’s Chinese-speaking community, which has more than 1.2 billion active users, many of whom are among the 1.2 million Chinese-Australian voters who will vote on Saturday. †

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Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, Communications Secretary Paul Fletcher, and North Sydney Labor candidates Catherine Renshaw and independent candidate Kylea Tink have all been featured in AFN’s WeChat channel ads.

Mr. Frydenberg — battling to the death against independent candidate Monique Ryan in Melbourne’s inner-city Kooyong — has paid for ads on AFN’s WeChat channel.


Mr. Frydenberg’s campaign featured most prominently on the AFN channel, with more than a quarter of all AFN election content – including ads, advertorials, and commentary – since January 6 featuring at least one reference to the treasurer.

When pitching to potential clients, AFN also sent samples of the WeChat ads they published on behalf of Mr. Frydenberg to potential political clients.

Josh Frydenberg is listed as the lead article on AFN’s WeChat. (WeChat: AFN)

“There are banner ads with the Australian Financial News promoting Morrison’s economic condition and planning for a stronger future,” said a spokesman for Mr. Frydenberg.

“Information on Anthony Albanese’s track record in supporting higher taxes for Australians has also been featured via banner ads.

WeChat researcher Robbie Fordyce of Monash University also noted that from April 2022, there was a marked increase in advertisements and positive editorial content about Mr. Frydenberg.

He said “this level of coverage” would normally only be available to paid customers.

While the treasurer’s office acknowledged placing authorized campaign ads on AFN, it denied paying the company to publish flattering editorial coverage.

“There is no payment for articles,” said a spokesman for Frydenberg.

An elusive business presence

Although AFN was a prominent player on WeChat during the election campaign, it remains an elusive corporate presence.

The publicly traded business address in the Barangaroo district of central Sydney was empty when the ABC visited last week. The phone number was also no longer associated with the company.

Its director, Han Guoliang, was previously a director and shareholder of the Sino-Australian media company Sydney Today.

In 2020, AFN apologized for publishing “false allegations” about an Australian fund manager.

A 2021 AFN press kit calls itself an “AFN think tank” that lists economist and former Workers’ Party Secretary of State Craig Emerson as a member.

Mr. Emerson says he has never heard of AFN.

“I am not familiar with this organization and do not recall being involved in their dealings,” he told ABC.

“Looks like the description of me comes straight from my website.”

The press kit also listed various companies and Australian government departments as their “cooperative partners”.

The list includes organizations such as business news and data provider Bloomberg, two of Australia’s largest consultancies, PWC and KPMG, and Victorian government agency Invest Victoria.

Australian Financial News (AFN) lists several renowned organizations, Chinese media, and cooperation partners. (Supplied: AFN)

Of those who responded to the ABC, all denied affiliation with AFN.

Invest Victoria said it had “no records of any relationship or partnership with Australian Financial News”.

A company against payment

Fan Yang of Deakin University — who is part of a research group that has examined more than 3,200 election-related ads and articles on WeChat from 134 public accounts since May 2021 — says companies like AFN operate as a fee-for-service company while maintaining the appearance of a news organization.

“They are somewhere between the media and a business,” she said.

The research team found that AFN was one of the most prolific publishers on WeChat of federal election-related content, publishing more ads and articles about Mr. Frydenberg than any other public account they monitored.

“Over the past week, we have seen several cases with two articles a day from AFN referring to [Mr] Frydenberg,” said Dr. Fordyce of Monash University.

Josh Frydenberg and Monique Ryan face each other on Saturday in a thrilling race. (ABC News: Nassim Khadem)

Ms. Fan and her colleagues also found that 7.7 percent of all 134 WeChat accounts they checked for election content contained some mention of Mr. Frydenberg, either in the text of an article or as an ad added to a report.

Mr. Frydenberg’s campaign also appeared to have provided AFN and another WeChat channel with original material that would later appear in great articles.

Eddie Chan, who runs a dry cleaning business in Melbourne, was featured in a video and two articles on WeChat praising the federal treasurer.

Mr. Chan told ABC that the glowing video interview was arranged after he offered to help Mr. Frydenberg in his reelection efforts.

Eddie Chan of Grosvenor Dry Cleaners in Kew, Victoria, appeared in a glowing video about Josh Frydenberg. (Supplied: AFN)

He said Mr. Frydenberg had arranged for his campaign team to film Mr. Chan in his shop. The images later appeared on AFN’s WeChat channel.

Mr. Chan was pleased to appear in the promotional material and said it reflected his candid view of Mr. Frydenberg.

“Josh brings people together. He has a strong local connection,” said Mr. Chan.

Independent candidate for North Sydney Kylea Tink has also posted ads, and an interview article has appeared on WeChat via AFN.

Her campaign told ABC that the company had made a tailor-made proposal for several advertisements, an interview, and a translated video that would run for six weeks.

The ads, video, and article were a package deal.

In the editorial with Ms. Tink, AFN wrote that the candidate “understood the importance of looking for similarities while at the same time preserving differences”.

“Participation in public welfare affairs has made her more aware of the current social situation and public sentiment in Australia,” the article said.

At the bottom of the paid interview with Ms. Tink, a disclaimer states that the article is an “election promotion” article.

Independent for North Sydney Kylea Tink’s team claims to have paid AFN for articles published on WeChat. (MONKEY: Bianca De Marchi)

An AFN article published on WeChat about Labor’s candidate for Northern Sydney, Catherine Renshaw, contains the following: “The above information is authorized by Bob Nanva of the Australian Labor Party (NSW). Level 9, 377 Sussex Street Sydney NSW 2000.”

Under Australian electoral laws, content considered “election communications” typically requires authorization to ensure transparency, accountability, and traceability.

There is no such disclaimer or authorization in the articles about Mr. Frydenberg.

When asked about the lack of proper authorization, Ms. Tink’s campaign said they would notify the publisher and ask to add one.

The AEC and Professor Renshaw have been contacted for comment, but neither has responded at publication.

Positive spin for Frydenberg

AFN’s articles on Mr. Frydenberg are almost universally flattering and, in some cases, appear to have been taken from other news outlets.

One of the AFN stories, published in mid-February, was titled “The next Australian Prime Minister is about to be decided?”

It details Mr. Frydenberg’s life story and paraphrases the positive parts of previous media reports about the Liberal candidate from other media, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

A glowing article highlighted Mr. Frydenberg’s Jewish heritage and suggested replacing Scott Morrison as the next party leader. (MONKEY: Mick Tsikas)

The article alleges that voters let down Prime Minister Scott Morrison for moving to Hawaii during the Black Summer wildfires and attending football games during the pandemic.

“Voters are running out in droves,” the article reads. “If the coalition hopes to return to power, it cannot rule out a new leader, and the current treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, would be a favorite.”

The glowing article then delves into how Mr. Frydenberg’s love of tennis has shaped him into a capable leader before explaining how his Jewish heritage was the ideal substitute for the country’s top job.

That story has been read more than 25,000 times among voters of Chinese background since it was published.

AFN did not answer ABC’s questions about whether Mr. Frydenberg’s office had reviewed or approved the articles before publication.

However, the story was removed after being contacted by ABC.

The treasurer is up against independent candidate Monique Ryan in the Victorian electorate of Kooyong, where, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2016), one in nine residents claims to have Chinese ancestry.

He has faced opposition from Sino-Australian voters over the coalition’s anti-Chinese rhetoric.

AFN and Labor did not respond to a request for comment within the deadline.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, and up and down arrows for volume. Viewing Duration: 8 minutes 25 seconds8m Behind the scenes of Parliament House, political “droplets” are used on an industrial scale to manipulate the media. (ABC News)

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Dorothy R. Barrett

I’m a full-time blogger by passion. This is my first blog, and I'm excited to share everything that I love about technology, business, and lifestyle with you. I’m a writer by trade, and I can be found writing about tech, business, and lifestyle on my personal blog.

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