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Opera News: Norwegian Chinese News App that Africa is addicted to; By Annunthra K


Image courtesy: The Diplomat


Article 42/2023


Opera Limited, a multinational technology conglomerate based in Oslo, Norway, with offices across Europe, China, and Africa, boasts a vast user base surpassing 380 million monthly active users across its desktop and mobile browsers and other services. 


The company underwent a change in ownership in 2016, where a consortium of Chinese investors acquired Opera Software ASA, the web browser, consumer business, and brand, while the remaining assets were rebranded as the Otello Corporation. The ownership transition commenced in February 2016, initially with a proposed acquisition of Opera Software ASA for US$1.2 billion by a group of Chinese investors; however, regulatory approval wasn't obtained for this deal. Later, on July 18, 2016, Opera Software ASA announced the sale of its browser, privacy and performance apps, along with the Opera brand, to Golden Brick Capital Private Equity Fund Limited Partnership, led by Beijing Kunlun Tech Co and Qihoo 360, for a sum of US$600 million. The sale received approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States on October 31, 2016, and was finalised on November 4, 2016, when Golden Brick Capital Private Equity Fund I L.P. completed the acquisition. Consequently, Opera Software ASA rebranded itself as Otello Corporation ASA after divesting its Opera browser and brand. 


Introduced in January 2018, Opera News is employing artificial intelligence to curate personalised content, catering to users' preferences in articles and videos. Its evolving recommendation engine adapts with each interaction, utilising machine learning to offer a tailored experience. This app not only provides trending news and engaging videos but also optimises data usage, reducing it by up to 80% which encourages the installation. Notably, Opera News has gained immense popularity, holding the position of the most downloaded app in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania, and securing a spot among the top 10 apps across the African continent. With over 2K ratings on the Google Play Store, an impressive 80% of these ratings award the app around 4.8/5 stars. 


Despite its extensive usage, Opera hasn't had significant notice from the community focused on China. This lack of attention might stem from its self-promotion as a company based in Norway, whereas in truth, it operates as a project owned by a Chinese entity. Opera has its development dedicated to focus on South Africa and SouthEast Asia and also offers customization for users across 71 countries, spanning Africa, the Middle East, South America, Canada, the United States, and various EU nations like Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Italy, and Ukraine.


Reportedly, over 20 million phones in Nigeria have downloaded it, with roughly 3 million Nigerians using it daily. According to Opera's 2019 report, it emerged as the most downloaded app in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana and had allegedly become the No.1 News app in South Africa.


Opera also introduced the Opera News Hub, an online editorial platform permitting content and blog creation, showcased on Opera News. This feature is exclusive to six African countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Egypt, and Ghana.


Fig 1. Opera News Hub website.

 

Opera has built an ecosystem by compensating for news creation, disseminating content to African audiences, and ensuring easy access to the app for customers purchasing Chinese phones. This comprehensive system has enabled Chinese digital companies to foster reliance on their products within the African audience, gradually establishing stronger dependencies and acquiring access to substantial user data. Opera has successfully built an ecosystem by compensating for news creation, disseminating content to African audiences, and ensuring easy access to the app for customers purchasing Chinese phones. This system has enabled Chinese digital companies to foster reliance on their products within the African audience, gradually establishing stronger dependencies and acquiring access to substantial user data.

 

The app's widespread use in certain African countries may be attributed to its pre-installation on Chinese mobile phones, particularly those manufactured by Transsion—Tecno, Infinix, and Itel—holding a tight market share in Nigeria. This integration complements Chinese companies' offerings curated for African users. Additionally, Opera expanded its services by launching OPay, originally conceived to remunerate African content creators for news production. Over time, it grew into a popular money transfer platform, standing alongside PalmPay, another Chinese-owned app, as one of Nigeria's preferred mobile payment solutions. Initially, Opera hired professional editors and journalists to curate high-quality content for African audiences, with creators earning around $8 for articles garnering about 100,000 clicks. In the Nigerian media landscape, content creators noted that Opera's payment policy often provided better compensation compared to traditional media outlets.

 

The Opera app collects device data like phone make and model, and location (with unclear update frequency), contingent on user consent settings. Profile creation leads to deeper data access, including contacts, gender, education, occupation, birthdate, and unspecified details. It tracks user interactions and content consumption to personalise recommendations. The app also integrates third-party tools from Google, Meta, Huawei, and Xiaomi, potentially granting Chinese firms access to diverse user data.


Fig.2 OPay Website

 

The ownership of the Opera News app by a Chinese entity raises concerns regarding the handling of sensitive topics linked to the Chinese Communist Party. This situation potentially skews the portrayal of information accessible to the app's users. As reported by the Diplomat in November 2023, the app consistently delivered irrelevant content when users searched for China-related topics. Specifically, searches about Uyghurs and Xinjiang predominantly yielded non-political content, like details about winter tourism or interviews with a Pakistani businessman in the region. Similarly, inquiries about Taiwan and its relationship with China resulted in articles unrelated to the political situation, focusing instead on travel visas, Taiwanese cuisine, and general health conditions. Likewise, inquiries about Taiwan and its relationship with China yielded unrelated articles on visa policies, Taiwanese cuisine, and health matters. Notably, searches for "Taiwan independent" primarily showcased Chinese state media articles warning against Taiwanese independence, comprising the majority of the relevant results. Even searches on topics like "China Taiwan conflict" led to similar articles emphasising Taiwan's president's statements about the unlikelihood of a Chinese attack, raising questions about the app's algorithmic limitations in curating content related to China-Taiwan tensions.

 

While more investigation into the app's operations is essential, it's evident that the algorithms seem to avoid displaying articles critical of China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Curiously, the app doesn't feature typical Chinese state media narratives accusing the West of hypocrisy, yet it downplays the significance of Xinjiang's human rights violations, signalling to millions of users, including Nigerians, a minimised perspective on the issue.

 

When viewed via India’s server, Opera News App showed otherwise.

 


Fig.3. Search Results in Opera News App when opted India as the country of origin.

 


Fig.4. Search results in Opera News app when opted for Nigeria as the country of origin.

 

The stark contrast between the search engines on the Opera News app for India and African countries when looking up terms like "China," "Uyghurs," "Taiwan," etc., is distressing. It's blatantly evident that the information provided is skewed due to the sensitivity of these issues and the app's heavy Chinese investment. Sadly, the African search system seems to unconditionally favour China's narrative, reflecting the app's allegiance to Chinese interests over unbiased reporting.

 

The overwhelming influence of Chinese ownership on the Opera News app is evident in its manipulation of information, particularly concerning sensitive topics related to China. The stark contrast in search results between India and African countries highlights the app's skewed presentation, favoring China's narratives while sidestepping critical discussions on issues like Xinjiang's human rights abuses or tensions regarding Taiwan. This deliberate manipulation underscores China's significant sway over digital platforms, enabling the dissemination of curated content that downplays or ignores vital global concerns, thereby shaping millions of users' perceptions, especially in Africa, where the app holds massive popularity. This control over information amplifies China's ability to mould opinions and restrict access to crucial discussions, highlighting the concerning impact of its influence on digital platforms.

 

(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

 

 

References:

 

  1. Hughes, Matthew. “Opera Software ASA Rebrands to Otello Corporation after Selling Its Browser Business (UPDATE).” TNW | Tech, 18 Dec. 2017, thenextweb.com/news/opera-software-rebrands-otello-corporation-selling-browser-business. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

  2. Limited, Opera. “Opera Launches MiniPay, a New Stablecoin Wallet Built on the Celo Blockchain, to Onboard Millions of Users across Africa to Web3.” Www.prnewswire.com, www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/opera-launches-minipay-a-new-stablecoin-wallet-built-on-the-celo-blockchain-to-onboard-millions-of-users-across-africa-to-web3-301926039.html. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

  3. Madegwa, Clinton. “Top 7 Best News Apps for Android to Check out in 2023.” Dignited, 14 Apr. 2023, www.dignited.com/109033/top-7-best-news-apps-for-android-to-check-out-in-2023/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

  4. “Opera Browser Sold to a Chinese Consortium for $600 Million.” Engadget, 18 July 2016, www.engadget.com/2016-07-18-opera-browser-sold-to-a-chinese-consortium-for-600-million.html. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

  5. Orimba, Ruby. “Big Win as Opera News Shines Again at 2023 Mobile App Awards.” Tuko.co.ke - Kenya News., 7 Dec. 2023, www.tuko.co.ke/editorial/feature/530549-big-win-opera-news-shines-2023-mobile-app-awards/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

  6. Sun, Leo. “4 Things about Opera Software That Smart Investors Know.” The Motley Fool, 19 Sept. 2023, www.fool.com/investing/2023/09/19/4-things-about-opera-that-smart-investors-know/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

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