Beijing’s Political Warfare Campaigns Exploit Social Media

December 23, 2021 Updated: December 25, 2021

News Analysis

Social media are an increasingly important front in the Chinese regime’s political warfare campaigns.

With the increasing loss of credibility of legacy media among Americans, people are turning to independent and social media for their news and information. A Pew Research poll nearly a year ago reflected the shift away from traditional television news to digital devices that is accelerating: “More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet ‘often’ or ‘sometimes,’ including 60% who say they do so often. [Furthermore, when asked what they] prefer to get news on, roughly half (52%) of Americans say they prefer a digital platform—whether it is a news website (26%), search (12%), social media (11%) or podcasts (3%).”

And while 11 percent of Americans getting their news from social media is not a large number, consider the narrow margins of victory in various U.S. political campaigns in 2020 and subsequently in 2021. This is why the political left in 2020, aided by their Big Tech allies, went all out to control dialogue on social media during the presidential campaign.

And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are all-in on trying to influence and control social media, too, for its own purposes.

Background

China is using political warfare, as coordinated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Political Department (GPD), to achieve its geopolitical goals around the world. Each target or objective of the CCP has an attendant political warfare strategy that is tailored according to the targeted society: Taiwan, India, the United States, Canada, domestic Chinese citizens, etc.

Some of the general principles of CCP political warfare are adapted to suit the target: undermine the legitimacy of the foreign government; challenge the democratic order in the particular society; challenge and exploit international law and international organizations to achieve goals; promote alternatives “with Chinese characteristics” to widely accepted universal values; and use the full range of information warfare tools to persuade, coopt, and influence political leadership, academics, cultural figures, and average people to adopt the CCP’s objective(s).

The objectives of CCP political warfare campaigns are invariably to weaponize all available sources of information to gain political power (ultimately, worldwide), capture and control foreign leaders, and defeat all counter-narratives aimed at exposing and reversing CCP aggression and hypocrisies. Always in play are the psychological warfare aspects of CCP political warfare that lead to the demoralization of decision makers and especially targeted populations.

Thus, to achieve its political warfare objectives, China places great stock in information warfare, which is an amalgamation or derivative of the Chinese strategy of “Three Warfares” that includes concurrent psychological, media, and legal components. Propaganda is the tie that binds the Three Warfares together.

Before the phrase “information warfare” was invented, Mao Zedong himself valued the use of propaganda to win over the masses domestically: “The world is progressing, the future is bright and no one can change this general trend of history. We should carry on constant propaganda among the people on the facts of world progress and the bright future ahead so that they will build their confidence in victory.”

Epoch Times Photo
Students for a Free Tibet protest below a new electronic billboard leased by Xinhua (2nd from top), the news agency operated by the Chinese regime, as it makes its debut in New York’s Times Square on Aug. 1, 2011. (Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images)

Exploiting Social Media

In recent years, the CCP has incorporated Soviet-era concepts of “active measures” to expand its information warfare toolkit in order to exploit new technologies and capabilities.

Active measures include the following: disinformation; false flag operations; counterfeiting; destabilization of foreign governments; direct support to and exploitation of foreign protest movements to weaken social cohesion; use of façade structures and false front entities; direct purchase of foreign media and/or control through paid advertising; and the mounting of social media campaigns using false accounts and proxies to target and influence key decision makers.

Social media have enormous reach and the ability to influence daily decisions of millions of people on a plethora of topics, not the least of which include the political. For example, current statistics reflect that Facebook has 1.9 billion daily active users and 2.9 billion monthly active users. Twitter has 396.5 million users, which represents 8.85 percent of all social media users in the world. With Twitter also being the most popular social media among users aged 25-34, it stands to reason that the CCP would target Twitter and Facebook to “capture the young”—just as Adolf Hitler (Hitler Youth–Hitlerjugend), Joseph Stalin (Young Communist League – KOMSOMOL), and Mao Zedong (Communist Youth League of China) did in the past. Control the next generation; control the population—the goal of every tyrant in history.

The methods those dictators used were cruder than the subtleties that are possible through the exploitation of social media. And the CCP aims to control social media by hook or by crook. It already controls WeChat and TikTok; why not Twitter and Facebook, too, as a modern tool in its political and information warfare tool chest? The CCP’s methods in doing so might make the Nazis and Soviets blush.

WeChat and TikTok apps
A reflection of the U.S. flag is seen on the signs of the WeChat and TikTok apps on Sept. 19, 2020. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Bot Armies

A “bot” is defined as “a software program that imitates the behavior of a human, as in participating in chatroom or Internet Relay Chat (IRC) discussions.”

A single program can control and manipulate hundreds or even thousands of imitation accounts—referred to as “bot armies”—on social media. For example, the fake accounts can be manipulated to automatically “like” or “retweet” postings that present CCP propaganda or Chinese government narratives to give the false appearance of wide support for the particular topic. This is a very powerful force-multiplier in the propaganda wars being conducted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

There have been many reports of bot armies being used by the CCP:

• During the 2016-2019 Russiagate hoax, as reported by The American Spectator, “China was operating one of Twitter’s largest propaganda bot networks.” The original information source was a Twitter safety report published in June 2020. According to Twitter, nearly 200,000 bots and fake accounts were suspended, including what Twitter referred to as 23,750 accounts of a “highly engaged core network.”
• Last September, as reported by The Diplomat, Facebook suspended 155 accounts and 11 pages that included “China-based network that targeted political disinformation at users in the Philippines.” The accounts were linked to individuals in China’s Fujian Province.
As noted by Dutch media this September, cybersecurity firm FireEye published a report detailing Chinese-backed accounts that were part of a coordinated social media influence campaign that “promoted the narratives of systemic racism, coronavirus fears and anti-Trump sentiments” in order to mobilize protestors in the United States in 2020.
• In November, The Diplomat reported that a study from “the Oxford Internet Institute and the Associated Press documented 26,879 Twitter accounts that amplified posts from Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended by the platform for violating rules prohibiting manipulation.”
• As reported by the Daily Caller News Foundation earlier this month, Twitter suspended thousands of accounts, including many “linked to a Chinese campaign aimed at downplaying the Chinese government’s role in the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.” The report said that Facebook suspended “524 Facebook accounts, 20 Pages, four Groups and 86 Instagram accounts linked to China” for nefarious practices.

Deepfake Technology

According to Norton, a leader in cyber protection technologies, “deepfake technology is an evolving form of artificial intelligence that’s adept at making you believe certain media is real, when in fact it’s a compilation of doctored images and audio designed to fool you.”

Perfect technology for influencing unsuspecting users on social media platforms like the popular YouTube application!

The Chinese are using artificial intelligence to create false images and videos aimed at corrupting and influencing social media chats and conducting spear phishing attacks, as well as to propagate false CCP-friendly videos.

According to an FBI alert reported in March, “foreign actors are currently using synthetic content in their influence campaigns, and the FBI anticipates it will be increasingly used by foreign and criminal cyber actors for spear phishing and social engineering in an evolution of cyber operational tradecraft.”

Frequent viewers of YouTube videos beware!

Use of Contractors to Generate Fake Content

The Chinese are blatant about their use of social media to shape public opinion at home and abroad. To arm their social media and cyber warriors in the political warfare campaigns, The New York Times reported on Dec. 20 an example of soliciting online bids from commercial contractors to produce content, including videos (using deepfake technology?), in support of official “public opinion management”—a CCP euphemism for public control through the use of propaganda.

According to the Times report, the purpose for that solicitation is “to create hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other major social media platforms.” The goal is “an upgrade in sophistication and power: a series of accounts with organic followers that can be turned to government aims whenever necessary.”

Should any content sourced from mainland China be trusted?

Conclusion

The Chinese regime’s political warfare has ramped up in a new and modern domain—that of social media and the internet. Chinese-sponsored cyberwarfare—involving fake social media accounts, bot armies, deepfake technology, and artificial intelligence—is hard at work every day of the year in attempting to fool and influence millions of unsuspecting users around the world. If a particular social media posting or video seems to be “not quite right” for its pro-China narrative, then there is a very good chance that it is indeed fake!

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk retired as a captain after serving 30 years in the U.S. Navy in a variety of active and reserve capacities, with considerable operational experience in the Middle East and the Western Pacific. Through education and experience as an oceanographer and systems analyst, Cvrk is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received a classical liberal education that serves as the key foundation for his political commentary.