China Power | Security | East Asia

Why the US Must Take China’s Disinformation Operations Seriously

China has barely scratched the surface of its potential to carry out a “people’s war” on global public opinion.

Why the US Must Take China’s Disinformation Operations Seriously
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

2022 is bound to be a turbulent year for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as he deals with diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics, tries to keep the pandemic under control with his draconian zero-COVID policy, looks to revive the economy, and, most importantly, prepares for a precedent-breaking third term as China’s leader. In response to these challenges, the party-state’s enormous propaganda apparatus is ramping up its global disinformation efforts.

Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long engaged in information warfare to manipulate public opinion, hoping to win hearts and minds around the world, Beijing has recently stepped up its global efforts, showing some new patterns and characteristics unseen before.

One of them is that China’s domestic and international disinformation machinery have started to merge. A request-for-bids notification of a Shanghai local police department in 2021 cast light on this trend. According to a recent New York Times report, the Pudong branch of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau publicly asked contractors to bid for services that included setting up large quantities of fake accounts on international social media, pushing out propaganda content, creating videos, attracting followers, posting pro-China comments, and tracking China’s critics and extracting their personal information.

The Pudong branch is just one of many district-level police departments – Shanghai alone has at least another 15. There are over 300 such police departments nationwide, and several thousand county-level police departments. In the past, these local police departments didn’t do propaganda work overseas but rather focused on domestic “public opinion management.” The Pudong police notification thus signifies the breaking of a boundary – China has begun expanding its information warfare terrain by mobilizing its domestic internet army into the international arena.

This Mao Zedong-style “people’s war” on global public opinion is alarming because China’s covert propaganda operation is getting bigger by the day. Last year, Georgetown University scholar Ryan Fedasiuk found that “the militarization of China’s internet trolls” resulted in an over 20 million strong so-called volunteer internet army under the Communist Youth League (CYL). This collective could easily flood international social media platforms if it jumped the Great Firewall, as some have done in the past. This “army” consists of college students and members of the CYL, whose job is patrolling internet commentators and public opinion guides. Additionally, there are 2 million paid professional internet commentators, volunteer censors, and an unknown number of internet police. China’s propaganda machine also has over 1 million journalists and reporters tasked with the mission to “tell China’s story well.” Armed with AI and bots, China’s huge internet army could hobble global social media platforms with a large-scale flooding attack to win the CCP’s public opinion war.

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This large-scale manipulation is appearing on international platforms. A recent study showed that 26,879 Twitter accounts were used to boost Chinese government messages nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended in a span of a few months. The study identified 449 accounts of Chinese diplomats and state media on Twitter and Facebook, which were used to post nearly 950,000 times between June 2020 and February 2021, garnering over 350 million “likes” and more than 27 million favorable replies and shares.

Similarly, China has also flooded YouTube with its propaganda videos. Between January and September of 2021, Google reported that it removed about 10,570 channels for engaging in “coordinated influence operations linked to China.” Just last month, the disinformation research company Miburo Solutions discovered that Spamouflage, a well-known actor who has been caught no less than four times in the past two years spreading China’s propaganda, continues to spread massive amounts of disinformation aligned with the CCP on Western platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

China uses these internet trolls to spread conspiracy theories abroad about the origins of COVID-19, deny the genocide of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang region, disseminate thousands of videos of “happy” and “free” Uyghur communities on international social media platforms to whitewash its image, promote Xi Jinping’s ideology of socialism with Chinese characteristics, attack democracy, praise China’s great achievements, and incite hatred against and divisions within the United States.

We have also observed that the Chinese regime not only uses fake accounts and internet trolls to spread rumors, but also uses them to surveil, suppress, and silence its critics on international social media platforms. China’s trolls track and attack their targets with great precision, often for quite a long time. One of the authors, Jianli Yang, is a primary target of these attacks – analysis of Twitter’s 2019 release of CCP information operations data on its platform showed that over 2,000 posts mentioned Yang by name, making him the second most frequently mentioned dissident in the entire archive.

As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaches, China’s internet army has intensified its efforts to carry out Beijing-assigned tasks of intimidating, attacking, and causing chaos among human rights activists overseas. Spamouflage’s campaign began focusing on Olympics messaging in December 2021. A government-run “Rumor Busting Platform,” founded in 2019 to operate as a domestically focused fact-checking organization, has recently published demonstrably false stories denying human rights abuses in Xinjiang and accusing boycotting governments of engaging in political manipulation. China has also started to employ its domestic internet control system on international users. Citizen Lab’s recent analysis reveals that MY2022 – an app China is requiring all attendees of the Beijing Winter Olympics games to use – has devastating security flaws and the ability to censor politically sensitive words.

To make its disinformation more effective, China has greatly increased efforts to disguise its online messaging abroad in recent years in two important ways. One is recruiting foreign vloggers to megaphone the CCP’s messages, building a sort of “Foreign Legion” as part of its internet army. U.K. citizen Barrie Weiss, who was turned into an internet celebrity by the Chinese, is just one of many of these foreign voices. A second tactic the CCP has deployed in recent years is localizing Chinese propaganda for audiences abroad, specifically by sending Chinese influencers to spread propaganda in local languages. In both cases – whether the CCP is outsourcing or localizing its propaganda – influencers hide their links to the Chinese government and Chinese state media, disguising state messaging as their own opinion.

These strategies are far from extemporaneous – they have been explicitly laid out at the highest levels of government and state-owned media in China. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and influential journalists at Chinese state media have promoted these approaches to strengthen China’s international propaganda work. One recent article from the state-owned CCTV openly urges Chinese media outlets to better tell China’s story in the new era through the mouths of “foreign Internet celebrities,” because their “three-inch tongue is stronger than a million soldiers.” The article argues that China needs to actively go beyond its national borders to educate foreigners with foreign amplifiers.

Even though U.S. social media companies have taken measures to remove China’s state-linked information operations, it is not enough to deal with this industrial scale and for-profit model of Chinese propaganda. Social media platforms’ attempts to label accounts belonging to the Chinese government or Chinese state media have thus far been woefully inadequate, even when those accounts are overtly state-affiliated.

We are also confident China has not fully used its capacity to carry out this “people’s war” on global public opinion. When it does, China could overwhelm international social media with overt and covert information operations. Behind “telling China’s story well” the regime aims to dominate the discourse of power to achieve a new authoritarian world order with Chinese characteristics. The United States must take effective measures to counter China’s information warfare.

Mao originally coined the Chinese term “sugar-coated bullets” to describe the influence of the bourgeoisie on the rank-and-file members of the CCP; today we fear that the scale and skill of China’s covert messaging strategies are sugar-coated bullets threatening liberal democracies around the globe.