The Strategic Spread of Disinformation
How The CCP Has Weaponized The Information Environment And How To Compete
Story By Doowan Lee/VAST-OSINT | Photos by The Associated PresS
Soon after Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping came to power, the CCP’s Central Committee General Office circulated a communique that came to be known as Document 9. It unequivocally stressed unwavering adherence to the party’s control of media and concerted management of the ideological battlefield, which analysts interpreted as a drastic departure from the party’s previous emphasis on domestic political control and censorship. Under Xi, the CCP has greatly expanded its influence operations in the information environment to manipulate the rest of the world. One of the key party organizations tasked with this mandate is the United Front Work Department (UFWD).
Spearheaded by the UFWD, the CCP has used disinformation campaigns on social media and news media platforms and artificial intelligence-enabled censorship of any voice that contests CCP propaganda. Its messaging has had several key themes. For instance, the CCP has consistently attempted to convince foreign audiences that it is a responsible and benevolent world leader by presenting the CCP’s autocratic model as a credible alternative to the West. Similarly, the CCP has attempted to undermine the perceived legitimacy of elections and democracy. It has consistently used disinformation campaigns to disrupt political processes in democratic countries.
These incidents indicate an increasing sophistication of the CCP’s information operations. As a whole, they pose far greater threats to the national security of the United States and other democratic nations than before. The U.S. and its allies and partner nations should approach the information environment as one of the most critical arenas of great power competition between democracies and autocracies. This article highlights the key characteristics of CCP information operations observed since 2020. Then, it offers three recommendations on how to combat this increasingly disruptive and distributed threat.
The year 2020 proved a watershed moment for those who have analyzed the CCP’s disinformation efforts. Its campaign to distort the truth about the COVID-19 virus showed an incredible reach with brazen official statements. The CCP sought to convince domestic and global audiences that the virus was intentionally planted in Wuhan, China, as a U.S. bioweapon. The campaign’s reach was vast, with propagation by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and its diplomats, government leadership and foreign policy figureheads in Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, among others, and an array of online media sources. It also showed an expanded network of transnational collusion. For example, Global Research Canada, a Canadian conspiracy website, and CCP officials often cited each other for validation. This disinformation tactic, known as “information laundering,” involves propagation of disinformation by purported Western analysts and media as a means of legitimizing the CCP’s disinformation campaign. Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s false tweet about COVID-19’s origin in March 2020 was retweeted over 99,000 times, in at least 54 languages, and reached roughly 275 million people collectively.
While the CCP’s information warfare has become truly global, the Indo-Pacific region has received the brunt of Beijing’s disinformation campaigns. In particular, the CCP’s efforts to mischaracterize Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy movement showed sophisticated information operations. The CCP used its broad media infrastructure to propagate false claims of pro-democracy activists’ collusion with foreign actors. In a similar vein, the CCP has targeted Taiwan to undermine its political independence and social cohesion. For instance, the CCP’s attempt to prop up pro-Beijing Kuomintang mayoral candidate Han Kuo-Yu in a ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stronghold in 2018 was highly impactful. False narratives and doctored images originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its affiliates spread widely on social media, vilifying the DPP government and praising Han. The CCP also attempted to sway the 2020 Taiwan presidential election, but Taiwan was prepared. Greater media literacy and disinformation mitigation enabled by public and private partnerships played a critical role.
The CCP’s information operations designed to undermine the region’s stability and erode the U.S.’s strategic interests were not limited to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Responding to investigative reporting that exposed a massive scale of concentration camps, rampant disappearances, extrajudicial murders and forced sterilization, the CCP went on the offensive to distort the truth. The CCP has globally disseminated false claims of economic development and education in China’s Xinjiang region to mask its ongoing genocidal campaign against ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities. The CCP has also restricted foreign journalists from entering the region to monopolize information emanating from Xinjiang. In Thailand, a fake video campaign allegedly depicting an Asian being brutally assaulted in the U.S. appeared on social media in 2020. The intent was to trigger and spread anti-U.S. sentiment in Thailand. The video was widely shared by pro-Beijing outlets and went viral in Thailand. In reality, the video clip was taken from a prison riot in Ecuador. This was not an isolated incident. The Philippines has also been subjected to a concerted disinformation campaign on social media to mischaracterize U.S. activities in the South China Sea. This campaign amplified statements of local politicians sympathetic to the CCP, gaining over 130,000 followers and seeking to realign the Philippines with China. In short, CCP disinformation efforts in recent years have dramatically grown in scope and intensity. Three patterns characterize competition against the CCP in the information environment. First, the CCP has greatly exploited asymmetrical access to media platforms. While major Western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have few or no access restrictions for authoritarian regimes, Chinese social media counterparts such as WeChat, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Tencent QQ have varying levels of access restrictions to Western users. Furthermore, the CCP exploits its social media platforms for censorship and surveillance. Data from foreign usage of these platforms is likely aggregated by the CCP for collection and intelligence purposes. Users in mainland China cannot access most Western news media and social media platforms. This makes it challenging for Western efforts to understand domestic CCP disinformation efforts and to aggregate data on these platforms.
Second, the CCP has dramatically increased its online presence globally since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. CCP officials’ activities on Western social media platforms have reached a record-setting level. For instance, CCP diplomats tweeted 210,382 times, averaging 778 times a day, over nine months in 2020.
Third, CCP intelligence services rely heavily on state-controlled technology companies to weaponize massive amounts of data for surveillance and censorship. This practice is not something the U.S. and its allies could simply emulate without severely encroaching on democratic principles and norms. CCP-affiliated companies are known to install backdoors to their technology that can enable offensive cyber operations. Similarly, the CCP has dramatically increased its cyber-enabled espionage and hacking in the region.
In sum, information warfare is one of the most critical arenas of great power competition. Moreover, the extent to which the CCP has weaponized the information environment poses grave national security threats to the region and beyond. The U.S. and its allies and partner nations should integrate data-driven open source intelligence in routine military planning and operations. The following strategies can combat the rapid expansion of CCP propaganda.
Competing in the Information Environment
First, the so-called whack-a-troll approach will not be sufficient to combat CCP disinformation because malign actors can either migrate to other platforms or change their user accounts. The CCP can always manufacture or contract out more accounts faster than other governments or companies can remove them from the information environment. Rather, governments should treat disinformation as a full-spectrum continuous campaign. More specifically, those who are responsible for safeguarding the integrity of the information environment should consider the following:
Continuously observe disinformation sources, dissemination mechanisms and effects. Much like operating in the land domain, it is critical to map and share how adversaries command, control, maneuver and communicate in the informational battleground.
Orient toward the entire system of disinformation propagation. Disinformation, much like any other weapons system, has an identifiable supply chain. While it is nearly impossible to attack domains in the PRC, CCP disinformation heavily relies on regional and local media outlets.
Decide on appropriate courses of proactive action from a whole-of-society perspective. It is critical to note that governments alone are often insufficient to combat the impact of malign content because much of the threat exists in commercial or civilian networks. Working with industry and civil society is a key decision to consider.
Act on the best available solutions to actualize the most appropriate course of action. A good example of this step is Taiwan’s Digital Accountability Project to promote fact checking and exposing compromised media outlets.
Second, government and industry leaders should expect foreign and extremist information operations to be more intense and rampant during any crisis. COVID-19 was an example of how authoritarian regimes exploit disinformation to exacerbate crises in democracies. Put differently, it is paramount that the public and private sectors develop resident systems to guard their assets and constituents against malicious information operations especially during an emerging crisis. Such endeavors should also include proactive messaging to inoculate their respective audiences from externally motivated and disruptive information operations.
Third, government and industry leaders should further embrace and promote public and private partnerships (PPPs) to accelerate the integration of mature technological solutions. For instance, the U.S. government should help its allies and partner nations to replicate and coordinate innovation partnership programs, such as the Defense Innovation Unit and the National Security Innovation Network under the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Board. In essence, democratic countries will be able to collaborate to scale and distribute how to compete against the CCP’s information warfare as an alliance of open societies.
A whole-of-society approach is not an option but rather a prerequisite to compete effectively against the CCP in the information environment. This approach would involve a more persistent PPP framework in which each government agency responsible for information statecraft has an advisory council of think tanks, academics and private sector stakeholders. This council of experts would convene regularly to discuss strategic challenges to open society and economics and to seek solutions unhindered by confirmation bias or bureaucracy.