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China is Borrowing a Page from Russia’s Disinformation Playbook

By Emily Taylor, World Politics Review, Tuesday, September 28, 2021

In the pantheon of state-led cyber operations, Russia has historically led when it comes to disinformation and sowing the seeds of social discord, while China was traditionally associated with intellectual property theft. There are signs that is changing, though, with China reportedly stepping up its disinformation campaigns on social media. 

Earlier this month, Mandiant Threat Intelligence reported two significant advances in online influence campaigns in support of the People’s Republic of China—one involving the use of accounts in multiple languages across many different social media platforms, and the other involving attempts to physically mobilize protests on the ground, on topics ranging from Hong Kong to COVID-19 conspiracy theories and even support for Scottish independence.

The Mandiant report is careful not to attribute these activities to the Chinese state. However, the scale and characteristics of the operations it details indicate a well-resourced, carefully planned approach consistent with activities identified by other researchers, such as Oxford Internet Institute and the Harvard Kennedy School, as being state-sponsored.

China has extensive propaganda operations, but until recently their principal focus has been domestic. Beijing understood early on the potential threat the internet posed to domestic harmony and regime stability, and it quickly created a censored version of the World Wide Web that has been dubbed the Great Firewall. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, as are certain search terms. The technical measures used to filter content are bolstered by large numbers of humans to manage digital consumption at home.

When it comes to international disinformation campaigns, however, China has appeared rather clumsy and “surprisingly imprecise and ineffective,” according to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory. Describing the so-called 50-Cent Brigade, which comprises social media users paid by China to write comments on social media in line with government rhetoric, Kerry Allen of the BBC Monitoring Unit described typical posts as using “very serious, overly formal language, such as ‘I resolutely oppose…’ a certain event … in Hong Kong.” 

Lately, though, China seems to have been learning from Russia’s playbook in several ways. 

First, there has been an increase in the breadth of topics its online influence campaigns cover and the number of languages they employ. Mandiant has detected pro-PRC activity taking place across 30 social media platforms as well as more than 40 niche internet fora and other websites, such as the Argentine social media site Taringa and the Russian sites Vkontakte and LiveJournal. The activity is reported to be conducted in more languages than previously identified—including Russian, Spanish, German, Korean and Japanese—although in some cases, the posts have grammatical errors that indicate they have been written by nonnative speakers. 

Beijing still seems to be feeling its way on how much is enough and how far is too far when it comes to disinformation.

Second, other campaigns seem to be engaging in early attempts to mobilize real-world protests and demonstrations. The Mandiant report cited thousands of posts in different languages—including Japanese, Korean and English—calling on Asian Americans to protest on April 24 in New York City and “fight back” against the purported “rumors” spread by Dr. Li-Meng Yan, Guo Wengui and Steve Bannon that “the Chinese had manufactured the coronavirus.” In some instances, the social media posts provided an address that they claimed Guo lived at. 

The physical event turned out to be a flop, but the novel use of the tactic by Chinese disinformation peddlers seems to be inspired by Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaigns. The Mueller report describes how agents from Russia’s Internet Research Agency organized political rallies in the United States. It also provides evidence that the Kremlin was preparing its influence operations for the 2016 elections for several years in advance. 

The content of China’s more recent influence campaigns also marks a departure from its customary approach. Instead of the familiar, stolid, patriotic statements aimed at improving China’s reputation and characterized by “spammy behavior and rudimentary execution,” the new approach is more aggressive. The Oxford Internet Institute’s annual Cyber Troops report for 2020 highlights that China, along with Russia and Iran, “capitalised on coronavirus disinformation to amplify anti-democratic narratives designed to undermine trust in health officials and government administrators.” Among the COVID-19 narratives disseminated in these campaigns, one claimed that the virus was created in a U.S. military lab at the Fort Detrick base in Maryland, and that it was introduced into Wuhan by U.S. armed forces during the Military World Games in 2019. 

Interesting though these developments are, we shouldn’t exaggerate the danger they represent. To really “win” at cyber disinformation requires a recklessness and devil-may-care attitude about the consequences, aimed at amplifying social divisions and sowing mistrust in authority and government among one’s adversaries regardless of the costs. This is where Russia excels, building on techniques honed during the Cold War era. Beijing still seems to be feeling its way on how much is enough and how far is too far, and this may help to explain the somewhat clunky approaches that we have seen to date.

No matter where China takes its current, more aggressive approach to information operations, these recent reports indicate that, whether the perpetrators are from Russia, China, Iran or domestic players within the United States and Europe, things have moved fast since 2016. Back then, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that a nation state could have used his social media platform to spread disinformation and interfere in domestic elections. Five short years later, the Oxford Internet Institute reports that more than 80 countries are now involved in computational propaganda, with rapidly evolving “tools, capacities, strategies and resources used to manipulate public opinion.”. 

When Edward Snowden’s published his revelations back in 2013, he said that he wanted to start a conversation about the use of technology and growing trends of mass surveillance. Perhaps an unexpected consequence of that conversation was that many states quickly learned from the exposed U.S. operations the full extent of what was possible—and developed their own ambitions to do the same thing. In a similar way, the 2016 Russian disinformation campaigns, supported by on the ground agents but mostly conducted remotely, has taught both state and nonstate actors how easy such tactics are—and now everyone is doing it, even if their effectiveness has yet to be conclusively demonstrated.

The Chinese-organized protest in New York may have been pitiful, and some of the social media posts in these online campaigns remain tone deaf and obvious. But what we are seeing in terms of their newly aggressive tone and the extension into other platforms and languages marks both a departure from previous approaches—and a significant investment of resources by China. This seems to be a learning experience, and China is a quick study.

Emily Taylor is the CEO of Oxford Information Labs, and an associate fellow with the International Security Program at Chatham House. She is also the editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy, a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an affiliate professor at the Dirpolis Institute at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. She has written for The Guardian, Wired, Ars Technica, the New Statesman and Slate

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