Measuring the size and impact of the Chinese misinformation machine is no easy task. But the fact that Twitter and Facebook announced today they suspended almost 1,000 accounts for being part of a China-backed campaign to disrupt Hong Kong protests could give a sense of its amplitude.
Asians woke up this Tuesday to news that Twitter decided to shut down 936 accounts originating from within China for a number of violations of the company’s “platform manipulation policies,” including spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts and ban evasion. Twitter also suspended approximately 200,000 accounts its investigation found were illegitimate.
According to the South China Morning Post, Twitter said “intensive investigations” had found “reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation” from the Chinese government.
Facebook took the same road. It removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts involved in what the company called a “coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong,” reported the South China Morning Post.
Both actions are reverberating worldwide and show a part of the Chinese official misinformation machine.
In August, Reuters reported that the Chinese government had paid “five media groups (in Taiwan) to publish positive articles about the country.” Without naming the companies where that had happened, the newswire service gave the world a new perspective of what China could be capable of doing when it needs to spread its own point of view.
“While the articles were presented as straight news, they were actually paid for by the Chinese government, according to a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement and internal documents from the Taipei-based newspaper,” Reuters said.
In Taiwan, fears of “red media” — Chinese-funded informational and propaganda campaigns — have plagued the country for several months. YouTube celebrity Holger Chen and New Power Party legislator Huan Kuo-chang, for example, teamed up to organize a rally. On June 23, they managed to flood the streets of Taipei with tens of thousands of protesters who were angry at China’s attempts to influence public opinion and manipulate the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for January 2020.
“I want to tell the Chinese Communist Party: Money can buy certain things, but not everyone is willing to put a price tag on their dignity,” Chen said in front of the crowd.
In a conference the same day, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen expressed support for the protesters, giving the sense that he felt the same way.
From London to Mexico
Nowadays, the planet also knows that eight countries, not including Taiwan, could be under China’s rising influence. This information came out of a report released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in March.
“China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order” emphasizes that China already owns a broadcasting production center in London as well as a radio station in Mexico that now offers Chinese-language programming to Southern California. RSF warns that Beijing’s efforts to control and manipulate information around the world could pose a serious threat to international press freedom.
“Strategies (deployed by the Chinese state to achieve its goals) include: modernizing its international TV broadcasting, buying extensive amounts of advertising in international media, infiltrating foreign media … but also employing blackmail, intimidation and harassment on a massive scale,” the report says.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump has continued to escalate America’s trade war against China, most recently announcing that it will impose a 10% tariff on $300 billion in Chinese imports starting Sept. 1. He is also openly working on his re-election campaign.
The U.S. Congress, on the other hand, has yet to pass any legislation addressing evidence from the Mueller Report that Russia sought to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The Honest Ads Act, which was proposed in October 2017 and would make it more difficult for foreign entities to purchase Facebook and Google ads, has dwindled.
Several news outlets have reported on fears about whether the United States is adequately prepared to handle misinformation campaigns, which are getting more sophisticated, next year during the 2020 presidential elections.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller said himself during testimony that not only is Russia attempting political interference right now, “as we sit here,” but there are also “many more countries” with similar cyber capabilities that could do the same.
The cyber security research firm Recorded Future worked around this topic. In March, it also released a report about China’s disinformation operations, comparing them to those of Russia’s.
It found that “at least right now, Beijing’s social-media influence operations aim is to paint China as a positive player on the world stage and advocate for Chinese interests in larger political discussions, such as trade.”
Perhaps because the focus has been on shaping Americans’ opinions about China-related issues and Trump, rather than directly meddling in domestic affairs, the country’s influence has gone largely undetected by American audiences.
But the report warns that China’s attempts at influencing American opinion are both unique in design and incredibly effective.
Researchers found that merely two Chinese Instagram profiles were able to reach a level of audience engagement “roughly one-sixth as large as the entire Russian Internet Research Agency campaign targeting the United States on Instagram.”
360-degree information control
In a podcast from the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Fu King-wa, associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, identifies China’s attempts at global informational influence as part of what he calls the “3.0 version” of informational control.
“(China’s censorship) is evolving into a different status now. I don’t use the word censorship; I’d say it’s more all-around, 360-degree information control,” he said.
Since 2011, King-wa has been tracking censorship patterns on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site that’s one of the country’s largest social networks with upwards of 445 million active monthly users. His project, Weiboscope, scrapes data from the site and keeps track of items of content that have been erased by the government to determine patterns in censorship.
He launched the same project with WeChat, WeChatScope, in 2018 to get a more comprehensive picture of the government’s goals. WeChat is a multi-purpose application used for messaging, social media and online business and has more than 1 billion active monthly users.
From what he’s deen of the data so far, King-wa says that the government’s strategies for control aren’t just about censorship, but manipulation. One example of this is fake trending lists.
Another is that authorities have begun to get involved in what King-wa called “soft issues,” topics like hip hop, music and jokes, which wouldn’t ordinarily call for monitoring and censorship.
“They want content to be under the control of the government, no matter what the content is about,” King-wa said. “They (may) have a fear that even these non-political issues might be politicized and become something that will impact the stability of the state, or stability of the ruling.”