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A Chinese-owned News App is Taking Africa by Storm

Opera News app is one of the most popular personalized news aggregators in African countries. Yet so far it has largely escaped attention. 

Opera News shows news articles, from both local and world media, and also serves as a microblogging platform for text posts, photos, and videos created specifically for the app. While Opera mostly aims to entertain users, offering content showing recipes, lifestyle articles, information about celebrities and sports, it also serves as a crucial source of news.

Originally a Norwegian company, Opera gained prominence through its Opera browser, which compressed websites for mobile phones, reducing data consumption – a particularly attractive feature in lower-income countries with soaring data prices. The app, released in 2018, quickly surged in popularity, hitting 1 million downloads within the first four weeks and surpassing 100 million downloads to date. 

Despite its widespread use, Opera has not drawn much attention from the China-watching community. One of the reasons may be that it self-promotes as a Norwegian-based company. However, it is evident that, in reality, it is a Chinese-owned project.

In 2016, parts of the Norwegian company, namely its web browser and the brand name, were acquired by a Chinese conglomerate led by Qihoo 360, a mobile security app, and Beijing Kunlun Tech, a mobile games developer. The remaining part of the company, which changed its name to Otello, continues to focus on advertising and apps.

A 2021 report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission identified Kunlun as Opera’s parent company, holding more than 55 percent of the company’s shares. Furthermore, Zhou Yahui, Kunlun’s shareholder and Opera’s CEO, also possesses over 8 percent, potentially granting Zhou control over 64 percent of the voting power. Another 20 percent of the company is owned by Qifei International Development, a Hong Kong-based company owned by Qihoo 360. 

Reaching a Global Audience Unnoticed

Opera claims that the app currently has more than 350 million users. If accurate, the app would rival X (formerly Twitter) in popularity and match approximately 10 percent of Facebook’s user base. While more detailed information regarding the geographical scope of the app’s users is not available, the data at hand suggest that the platform is highly popular in some African countries. 

For example, in Nigeria, it was allegedly downloaded on more than 20 million phones and about 3 million Nigerians use it on a daily basis. In 2019, Opera’s report showed that it was the most downloaded news app in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

Opera’s website mentions that the app was developed with a focus on Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the scope is much broader as the app allows users to choose any of 71 countries to customize content. Besides many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, Opera also provides tailored content for users in Canada, the United States, and several European countries, such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Italy, and Ukraine.

Furthermore, the company also provides Opera News Hub, an online editorial platform that allows users to create content and blogs, which are then displayed on Opera News. This feature is only available in six African countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Egypt and Ghana. 

Creating a China Business-centered Ecosystem

The popularity of the app in some African countries may be explained also by the fact that it comes pre-installed on Chinese mobile phones. The app allegedly comes pre-installed on Tecno, Infinix, and Itel phones, which are manufactured by Transsion, the largest Chinese manufacturer and provider of phones to Africa, holding about 50 percent of smartphone market share in Nigeria. The app therefore complements the offer provided by Chinese companies specifically to African users.

Moreover, Opera ventured into mobile payment apps business by launching OPay. Initially designed as a way to pay African content creators for making news, it now serves as a popular way of transferring money in general. In Nigeria, it is one of the most popular mobile payments apps besides PalmPay, which is also Chinese-owned. 

Initially, Opera recruited professional editors and journalists to create and curate quality content for African audiences. Content creators could earn around $8 if their article received about 100,000 clicks. In the context of the Nigerian media environment, the content creators mentioned that the Opera payment policy provided better salaries than the traditional media.

Thus Opera has managed to create a noteworthy ecosystem – paying for news creation, distributing the content to African audiences, and ensuring the app is easily available to customers buying Chinese phones. Through this ecosystem, Chinese digital companies have cultivated reliance on their products among the African audience, gradually establishing deeper dependencies and gaining access to extensive user data.

Algorithm Avoiding China’s Sensitive Issues

Given that the Opera News app is Chinese-owned, concern about the aggregation of content related to topics sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party is of particular significance. This issue could potentially lead to a biased portrayal of information for the app’s users. 

Since the app is predominantly popular in Nigeria, I specifically analyzed content filtered for Nigerian users. In November 2023, the app consistently delivered irrelevant content when queried about China-related topics. 

Most notably, when I tried to search for various keywords related to Uyghurs and Xinjiang, the app almost exclusively offered apolitical content among the top results, such as opportunities for winter tourism in the autonomous region or interviews with a Pakistani businessman. 

Similarly, when searching for information related to Taiwan and its relations with China, the app provided articles about visa policies of different countries when traveling to Taiwan, Taiwanese cuisine, and the health situation. In one case, when searching for the keywords “Taiwan independent,” the search showed eight relevant articles out of the first 20. However, seven of them were Chinese state media warning that Taiwanese independence would mean war. 

In another case, employing a combination of keywords – “China Taiwan conflict” – the search provided 16 relevant articles among the first 20 results, highlighting Taiwan’s president stating that China is unlikely to attack Taiwan. Almost all of these articles showed very similar headlines but different sources. The same combination of keywords mentioned in these articles suggests that these search results were likely not detected by the algorithms limiting the spreading of content focusing on tensions between China and Taiwan. Alternatively, such messaging may not considered as harmful to China’s image. 

Whereas more research regarding the app’s functioning is crucial, it is certain that the algorithms avoid showing articles critical of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Interestingly, the app does not offer any of the typical Chinese-state media articles accusing the United States and the collective West of hypocrisy and double standards. Yet, it sends a message that human rights abuses in Xinjiang are not an important and widely researched and discussed topic, downplaying the severity of the issue for millions of Nigerians and other users around the globe.

Where Do the User Data Go?

Whereas policymakers, analysts and cybersecurity experts have held lengthy discussions on risks surrounding TikTok, its links to the Chinese government, and potential misuse of data and the app’s algorithms, Opera News has so far managed to escape their attention.

The app officially mentions that it gathers data about the device, specifically the phone manufacturer and phone model, and information about the location, even though it does not specify how often the geolocation gets updated. The data collection largely depends on the consent and logging options, and thus it does not significantly differ from the data collected by other social media apps, such as Facebook and TikTok. 

In case the user decides to create a profile, the data collection goes deeper, accessing the phone’s contact list and details about the user, such as gender, education, occupation, birthdate, and unspecified “other” information. Besides, the app gathers data to customize the content, such as which articles and videos are viewed by the user and measures the user’s interactions. 

Furthermore, the app discloses that it includes third-party technology or code which may use users’ data in different ways. The app mentions Google and Meta, but also Huawei and Xiaomi, whose tools likely serve to process users’ data to inform the recommendation algorithms, which grants access to a wide range of data to Chinese companies. However, it should be noted that other social media companies usually have cooperation agreements with Chinese companies, such as Facebook, which was found to have a data-sharing agreement with Huawei at least from 2010 to 2018. 

As China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law obliges individuals, organizations, and institutions to assist and cooperate with state intelligence, Chinese companies, Opera included, could potentially be pressured to share the data with the Chinese government. This finding requires a more in-depth cybersecurity assessment as it raises concerns about potential access to detailed data of millions users, especially those from Africa.

Source: The Diplomat

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