Following the 2016 presidential election, Russia’s interference in American politics has regularly been discussed by intelligence agencies in the West and in the media. These reports have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to continue attempting to interfere in elections, both this year in the United States and into the future.
Yet, as the narrative around disinformation campaigns has focused almost exclusively on Russia, some are concerned that similar disinformation efforts by China continue to be ignored.
Mark Grabowski, the associate professor of communications at Adelphi University, warns that American journalists and academics far too often dismiss Chinese disinformation campaigns as “primitive.”
Research recently conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) suggests that China’s information warfare is getting more sophisticated and is, increasingly, seeking Western targets.
Twitter disinformation warfare
Since 2016, Russia’s online disinformation campaign has gotten more sophisticated, with cyber and political experts warning that the main goal is sowing confusion and domestic discord. Intelligence reports indicate that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 election – news that has been picked up by a number of media outlets.
But Grabowski, who specializes in cyber law and ethics, is concerned that this focus on Russia, on the part of both journalists and academics, has helped obscure just how extensive and dangerous China’s own disinformation campaign has gotten.
“There’s a myth among many American journalists and academics that China’s disinformation campaigns are primitive and less sophisticated than Russia’s,” Grabowski told The Millennial Source.
A Quartz article from September 2019 stated of China’s disinformation campaigns, “It’s ridiculously easy to identify China’s efforts as bizarre or even downright false.”
“That’s a very naïve and dangerous underestimation of China’s capabilities,” Grabowski believes.
He referred to a June 12 report by Twitter in which the company disclosed finding 32,242 accounts that were part of a “state-linked information operations.” Twitter has created an archive for all such accounts in order to “improve public understanding of alleged foreign influence campaigns.”
As of May 2020, Twitter had identified 1,152 Russian accounts. For China, it was 23,750 accounts.
Those nearly 24,000 accounts were the main core of China’s network, but another 150,000 “amplifier” accounts “were designed to boost this content.”
A lack of news coverage
Despite China’s far greater presence on Twitter, Grabowski finds little evidence that the US news media is covering the story.
“Using LexisNexis’s news research database, I found only two stories about ‘Chinese trolls’ in the past month compared to 74 about ‘Russian trolls.’ In the past three months, there 507 stories about ‘Russia’ and ‘bots,’ but only 32 stories about ‘China’ and ‘bots.’
“Even in the 10 days since Twitter revealed this problem,” Grabowski adds, “the media’s focus has not shifted. From June 12 to June 22, there were 44 stories about ‘Chinese disinformation’ compared to 113 stories about ‘Russian disinformation.’ The disparity in academia is similar. Most of the disinformation experts are focused on Russia and/or right-wing propaganda.”
Asked whether there is a lack of awareness of the issue or simply a reluctance to report on it, Grabowski says that it’s actually down to “an utter lack of curiosity among the mainstream media.” Russian interference was such a massive story in 2016, he believes, that journalists have stayed fixated on it and have not followed other lines of inquiry.
There may also be a financial incentive to keep from focusing on China, Grabowski suggests.
“The Washington Post, for example, receives millions of dollars from China to publish an advertising supplement that’s designed to look like journalism but is essentially Chinese government propaganda.”
The “China Daily” supplement, deemed “a propaganda outlet of the Chinese government,” has appeared in the Post for years, as well as in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and in other major US newspapers.
“The Post is also owned by Amazon,” Grabowski adds, “and a majority of Amazon sellers are either based in China or buying goods from there. The newspaper’s coverage of China has not exactly been tough, so it’s understandable why some people may think this lack of critical coverage is financially motivated.”
Chinese disinformation in the spotlight
So is anyone in the West covering the topic of Chinese disinformation?
“The New York Times – Paul Mozur, in particular – has done a good job of tracking Chinese disinformation and influence campaigns on social media,” Grabowski says.
In August 2018, Mozur, with Steven Lee Myers, wrote of China’s “disinformation war against Hong Kong protesters” for The New York Times. As pro-democracy protests overtook Hong Kong in 2018, China was not just trying to “spin” the news, they were trying to control it.
“The Communist Party exerts overwhelming control over media content inside China’s so-called Great Firewall,” the Times reported. “In recent days, China has more aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos to undermine the protesters.”
This June, days before Twitter released its report on state-linked accounts, Mozur contributed to a New York Times report on China’s use of Twitter “to shape the global narrative about the coronavirus and much else.” The Times found 4,600 suspicious accounts.
“One in six tweeted with extremely high frequency despite having few followers, as if they were being used as loudspeakers, not as sharing platforms.” Another one in seven only retweeted other accounts, never tweeting original content. A full one third “had been created in the last three months.”
None of those actions in and of themselves prove an account is inauthentic, but they do “suggest a coordinated campaign of the type that nation states have carried out on Twitter in the past.”
For their reporting efforts, almost all of the Times’ journalists, as well as those of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, have been expelled from China. This greatly hinders access to accurate information out of China, Grabowski says.
“China’s surveillance state and so-called Great Firewall make it difficult to get information out, so you really need to be on the ground there to effectively make observations, cultivate sources and report on what’s going on.”
Studying China’s online presence
Grabowski pointed to the ASPI as having the most enlightening research into China’s disinformation efforts. Based in Canberra, the think tank focuses on defense issues and has spent the last few years reporting on China’s efforts to exert influence via Twitter.
Their report, “Retweeting through the great firewall,” published in June 2020, combined “quantitative analysis of bulk Twitter data with qualitative analysis of tweet content.” Twitter is blocked in mainland China, but that hasn’t stopped the government from using it as a tool overseas. Though its main focus, ASPI reports, has historically been Hong Kong.
“The main vector of dissemination was through images, many of which contained embedded Chinese-language text. The linguistic traits within the dataset suggest that audiences in Hong Kong were a primary target for this campaign, with the broader Chinese diaspora as a secondary audience.”
Unlike Russia, which has been known to create counts or position agents years in advance for a long game of influence, China’s Twitter efforts have been less involved.
“There is little effort to cultivate rich, detailed personas that might be used to influence targeted networks; in fact, 78.5% of the accounts in Twitter’s takedown dataset have no followers at all. There’s evidence that aged accounts—potentially purchased, hacked or stolen—are also a feature of the campaign. Here again, there’s little effort to disguise the incongruous nature of accounts (from Bangladesh, for example) posting propaganda inspired by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”
In addition to spreading a pro-CCP message, these Twitter accounts have also focused on “emerging events—including the Covid-19 pandemic and US protests in May and June 2020.”
China’s government has used a variety of tactics for spreading disinformation. These include “the use of Western social media platforms to seed disinformation into international media coverage,” and “the co-option of fringe conspiracy media to target networks vulnerable to manipulation.”
Both tactics are recognizable to anyone who is familiar with Russia’s COVID-19 disinformation campaigns.
The ASPI makes the connection explicit.
“There’s much to suggest that the CCP’s propaganda apparatus has been watching the tactics and impact of Russian disinformation.”
Cultivating foreign talent
Among China’s efforts to control and distort any and all news related to itself, ASPI finds, is the targeting of specific audiences and “the promotion of diverse sources, noting that international audiences are inclined to accept independent media.”
Additionally, China appears to be focused on “the cultivation of foreign talent.”
As Grabowski explains, while China’s Twitter disinformation may be “underdeveloped,” that is less important than getting legitimized sources to speak for them.
“[China] can simply find an American journalist or academic with a blue checkmark and amplify their views by liking and retweeting their tweets. There are blue checkmarks every day tweeting stuff like China is not the enemy, they’ve done more to end poverty than any country, the Uyghur concentration camps are fake news, coronavirus should be called Trumpvirus, etc.”
Indeed, one such journalist who has helped amplify these pro-China messages is Ajit Singh. He has questioned the reports that China is detaining and abusing millions of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang (the US recently passed sanctions against China for its human rights abuses of the minority group, also known as Uyghurs).
Ben Norton, another journalist, has argued that “China has done more to address extreme poverty ‘than any country in the history of civilization.’”
Both Norton and Singh are contributors to The Grayzone, an independent news site created by Max Blumenthal. The Grayzone has frequently appeared to work as a public relations outlet for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Blumenthal received a US$5,000 grant from the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, which has been accused of promoting “anti-Israel views” and supporting “dictatorial Middle East regimes.”
Chinese disinformation in the US
While Russia’s disinformation campaigns are generally focused on sowing discord in their international rivals, China has largely used its online activities to promote its own self-interests.
That’s not to say that China isn’t seeking to influence Americans and American politics. There is reason to believe that China, like Russia, could want to interfere in the 2020 election.
Though President Donald Trump has often taken a hard line against China, especially in terms of trade, a recent report in The Atlantic finds that there is good reason to suspect China has an interest in seeing Trump reelected.
“Here lies the main reason Beijing may not mind another Trump term: His style of foreign policy—unilateral, personalized, and fixated on dollars-and-cents matters—has severely weakened America’s traditional system of alliances … Beijing has surely noted that Trump has strained relations with America’s two closest allies in the region—South Korea and Japan—with his persistent and petty squabbles over trade and the costs of US military bases in those countries.”
If the US is less of a presence in the region, that leaves space for China to expand its influence. Plus, if the US isolates itself from its allies, both parties have less power on the national stage. That serves China’s (and likely Russia’s) interests.
So is China engaged in a campaign to influence US foreign policy and American attitudes toward China? A definitive answer isn’t available, but it is worth noting that Harvard professor Charles Lieber was arrested earlier this year for allegedly failing to disclose his ties to the Chinese government.
And then there’s TikTok, the massively popular video-based app that has grown increasingly popular with American Zoomers, even as the US fears its data-mining capabilities. Grabowski believes the app is a legitimate cause for concern.
“Consider that a Chinese company with ties to the CCP owns one of the most popular social media apps in America — TikTok. 45 million Americans use that app and, by analyzing its treasure trove of data, China can gain all kinds of insights and leverage it to manipulate Americans.”
None of this definitively proves that China is currently seeding disinformation specifically in the US – or even that it wants to. But, given the extent of the Chinese operation and a lack of recognition of that fact by the media, by academics and by the public in general, what is clear is that Americans are vulnerable to any such attempt.
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