China Perfecting Its Social Media Disinformation Operations to Influence Americans: Analyst

By J.M. Phelps
J.M. Phelps
J.M. Phelps
Freelance reporter
J.M. Phelps is a writer and researcher of both Islamist and Chinese threats.
January 8, 2022 Updated: January 8, 2022

The Chinese regime is perfecting its ability to influence social media users through the spread of propaganda and disinformation, an analyst says, despite encountering few setbacks.

Twitter in December removed 2,160 accounts linked to Chinese information campaigns. Most of the accounts were removed because they “amplified” the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative to stymie allegations of human rights abuses by Beijing against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, Twitter said.

Last year, Facebook also took note of various China-based operations when it was alerted to an account purporting to be a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards. According to the fake biologist’s Twitter and Facebook postings, “the United States was putting pressure on World Health Organization scientists studying the origins of COVID-19 in an attempt to blame the virus on China.”

Chinese state media outlets, including the Global Times and People’s Daily, then began running pieces quoting the fake scientist with headlines about alleged “intimidation” efforts of the United States. When the Swiss embassy in Beijing announced that there was no Swiss citizen by that name, Facebook found that the account was fake, having been created less than 12 hours before it started posting about the pandemic. Facebook responded by deleting more than 600 accounts in November linked to the Chinese disinformation campaign.

“The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a broad, diverse campaign to influence U.S. policymakers, companies, academics, media, and public opinion to align U.S. policy with China’s interests,” an FBI spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email.

Strategies Sowing Distrust

Evan Anderson, CEO of INVNT/IP, an organization that fights state-sponsored intellectual property theft, told The Epoch Times that, historically, it’s not unusual for countries to attempt to use propaganda and misinformation to shape public opinion in order to achieve their own strategic goals. Russia and the CCP, in particular, have used a variety of foreign malign influence operations to shape a narrative that suits them best.

The “Gerasimov doctrine,” for example, is attributed to Valery Gerasimov, the current Chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces. According to the doctrine, military, diplomatic, economic, technological, information, cultural tactics are combined to achieve Russia’s strategic goals. Similarly, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) concept of “unrestricted warfare” uses the same tactics and techniques to weaken adversaries of the Communist regime.

Anderson said the digital era has changed “absolutely everything,” as Russia and China continue to attempt to undermine the United States by influencing policymakers, companies, academics, and media. Both countries have learned that the spread of disinformation contributes to winning over foreign audiences and sowing distrust toward the United States, he said.

The near-identical strategies have become increasingly effective in the digital era, according to Anderson.

“Propaganda can be within the pocket of every American citizen [with a cell phone] within seconds,” he said, adding that modern digital infrastructure and its connection to millions of citizens around the world provides a near-boundless ability to spread misinformation.

Learn and Improve

Using a “very formulaic approach,” the Russians may have perfected the use of propaganda as a tactic, according to Anderson.

“They mixed a percentage of truth with a slightly higher percentage of misinformation or propaganda and delivered it to an audience that was already inclined to hear it,” he said. The method, Anderson said, proved to be effective in “affecting the way those people thought about certain topics.”

The Chinese regime has learned a lot from Russia in the past five years and Beijing is doing its best to implement the same tactics with limited success, Anderson said. “What we’re seeing is [the Chinese regime] stumbling through the testing that’s required to perfect the methods they’ve seen work for Russia.”

Anderson referred to the example of the Swiss biologist persona created by China to shape the narrative surrounding the origins of the pandemic. “This was a clumsy effort that could be easily improved upon,” Anderson said, adding that one of the biggest dangers the United States or an ally can do is dismiss Beijing’s attempt.

The overarching point, he said, is that the Chinese regime is going to learn from mistakes like this to become more effective at shaping a narrative that suits their agenda. Their clumsy efforts are a warning sign, according to Anderson. “It’s a red flag—far from a reason to relax and take a light-hearted tone—because these efforts can be made less clumsy in a very short time window.”

Like any public relations firm, he said, one of the things Beijing is doing is “figuring out what incites the most emotional response” within their target audience. The Chinese regime is testing multiple methods for affecting the thinking of the American populace and they’ll improve upon their ability very quickly, Anderson warned.

Anderson suspects the Chinese regime is working tirelessly to perfect these methods of spreading propaganda and misinformation. “The biggest thing to sound the alarm on would be the fact they’ve learned that disinformation campaigns are worth doing.”

‘You Are What You Eat’

Anderson said the Chinese regime exploits social media platforms to say what it wants to as many people as possible. “Over the past 10 years, it has been increasingly clear that our mass connection to social networks and the internet have made us all able to see material—factual or otherwise—from all sorts of people that we never would have been in contact with before.”

According to Anderson, “you are what you eat” when it comes to the choice of online information consumed by the reader. “Imagine that anyone in the world can potentially get into your social media bubble and fill it with whatever they would like you to believe.”

Social media consumption is on the rise. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, adults spent 90 minutes and 126 minutes per day on social media, according to Statista. And in 2020, the average amount of time invested on social media reached almost two and a half hours a day.

The implications of that, particularly in a free and open democratic society, are extremely dangerous, Anderson said.

“We’re seeing a very big clash between someone’s ability to be able to say anything he or she wants to, and the ability of a nefarious foreign political actor with malign interests who can do the same,” he said.

The Chinese regime, in this case, will continue to “pump all sorts of half-truths, propaganda, and confusing messaging onto the people of America,” he added.

J.M. Phelps
Freelance reporter
J.M. Phelps is a writer and researcher of both Islamist and Chinese threats.