It is a well-known fact that social media has a great impact on society today. Many countries have implemented sophisticated tactics to influence social media to shape global narratives. However, there are some nations that have great influence over social media beyond their borders by employing various technologies and human resources to implement disinformation campaigns.
China has long utilized information and disinformation domestically and in regions close to the People’s Republic, such as Taiwan. In recent years, Beijing has expanded its activities globally, increasingly taking from the Russian playbook of stoking division in other countries, sowing public doubt about expertise, and spreading rumors to shape global narratives.
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Since the pandemic emerged, Beijing has relied even more on wielding information operations abroad to shape global narratives. A study produced by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which tracks disinformation and propaganda, found that China, Iran, and Russia increasingly converged on disinformation narratives about the United States and the pandemic.
Although China once shied away from the aggressive, conspiratorial type of disinformation favored by Russia, it has increasingly turned to this approach during the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing is both manipulating factual information and spreading disinformation — or willfully false information — to distract from the origins of the virus, highlight the failures of the United States, and promote China as a global leader in order to shape global narratives.
Messaging from China suggests that democratic countries’ responses to the spread of the COVID-19 disease have been disastrous and that autocratic states have managed their outbreaks well. In reality, China initially failed to notify its citizens and international health bodies of a worsening outbreak there.
Disinformation: China vs Russia
What China is doing today is bringing comparisons to that of Russia. For example, both nations use hybrid strategies for leveraging social media accounts along with state media. Both countries have created fake personalities on various social media platforms for modernizing the analog concept of “agents of influence,” all in an attempt to shape global narratives. However, there are some prominent differences between the two nations.
Firstly, China is making all attempts to project to the world that they are a confident country and an emerging superpower with its leader Xi Jinping. However, Russia preferred to maintain a low profile in this regard.
Secondly, China is seen to maintain a parallel and unique information environment. While the residents of the country are allowed to participate in Chinese-state-approved communities only like WeChat and Weibo; the state has access to an international audience via popular global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. China’s presence and participation are these platforms occur via the establishment of fake accounts or of paid commenters with the sole intention of spreading disinformation.
Thirdly, China has a vast and robust human capital network on the ground in western society which is capable of executing various integrated influence operations on a large scale. Russia simply does not have this capacity.
For example, a recent report has revealed the extent of Beijing’s influence in Canada. The activities of such hidden Beijing-backed propaganda groups include affecting information published by the media, influencing politicians, and impacting management in universities to spread ideologies through the curriculum.
In using public relations firms, social media influencers, non-profit patriotic community groups, business entities, media, and politicians, the Chinese Communist Party is crafting an increasingly complex and obscure propaganda system within Western societies to prop up economic and social policies that align with that of Beijing. This is all part of Beijing’s plan to shape global narratives in their favor.
China’s mixed results
China’s efforts with social media, although more extensive than that of Russia, have been met with mixed results. A Pew Research Center poll of Americans, for instance, found that unfavorable views of China have reached a historic high, possibly in part due to China’s COVID-19 messaging.
Chinese disinformation still seems more simplistic than Russia’s. Chinese fake social media accounts spreading disinformation about COVID-19 often appear shoddier than Russian ones and thus easier to expose.
Still, some of Beijing’s disinformation punches are landing. And as China and Russia increase their cooperation on information and disinformation tools — they are sharing knowledge through exchanges and in other ways — more dangerous messaging almost surely will increase as both attempt to shape global narratives in how they are perceived.