‘Whole-of-Democracy’ Response Needed to Fight Beijing’s COVID-19 Propaganda

Communist regime unleashes waves of disinformation both to attack and defend
May 6, 2020 Updated: May 11, 2020

News Analysis

As accusations mount against Beijing for its wrongdoing leading to COVID-19 becoming a pandemic, the Chinese regime has ramped up propaganda both to defend itself and to attack others. Canada is vulnerable on the home front and can’t simply rely on a national security agency to thwart the threat, experts say.

Disinformation is part of a broader hostile communications strategy of totalitarian states. It attempts to manipulate public opinion by creating or sharing false information, and is used together with coercion or soft power to sway people to take more favourable stances toward the offender. 

And then there is “wolf warrior” diplomacy. An example is China’s recent threat to boycott Australian goods when that country pushed for an investigation into the outbreak of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus. 

“They need to do this to deflect attention obviously away from their own failures, which are primarily the suppression of data and information regarding the coronavirus,” Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Marcus Kolga told The Epoch Times.

Kolga, a digital communications strategist and expert on disinformation campaigns, says propaganda from malign state actors is a serious problem and Canada is not doing enough about it. 

He adds that dealing with it goes beyond the responsibility of a national security agency.

“This is a whole-of-government, whole-of-society problem, and the approach that we need to take is whole-of-government, whole-of-society, but frankly whole-of-democracy,” he said. “The ultimate aim of all of these governments is to undermine and subvert our democracies.

“Destabilize, that’s what they’re trying to do.” 

This is accomplished by turning us against each other, Kolga added. 

Protecting Ourselves

“We need to be ensuring that Canadians are aware of what these disinformation narratives are. So that means monitoring them and exposing them when they come up,” Kolga said.

A 2018 CSIS disinformation study stated that “both Moscow and Beijing have developed sophisticated information doctrines” to protect themselves domestically and advance foreign-policy interests. This involves coordinating messaging across multiple platforms like television and social media.

“Disinformation serves immediate and long-term strategic objectives,” the report states.

Increased public awareness is needed so that people can tell what’s propaganda and what isn’t. There are many ways to counter the threat, but the report concludes that “there is no guarantee that even effective counter-campaigns can defeat the high volume flow of malicious communications.”

Canadians need to understand which foreign media pump out propaganda—like Russia’s RT or Sputnik and China’s Xinhua—and they should have warning labels like the ones put on television programs for violence or foul language, Kolga said.

From a national security and defence perspective, disinformation is an attack by the Chinese and Russians on the Canadian home front, which has never been so vulnerable when also combined with cyber threats. Global Affairs Canada issued a statement on April 30 condemning cyberattacks against hospitals and treatment research centres during the pandemic.

“There’s been no shortage of disinformation campaigns, not all of it is Russia, not all of it is China, but you can bet that they are happy to take advantage and amplify messages that may not be conducive to solving this pandemic,” said Stephanie Carvin, Carleton University professor and former national security analyst, during a May 1 webinar hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDA Institute).  

Just because the military has cyber experts, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily be the primary defenders against disinformation, said Stephen Saideman, director of the Canadian Defense and Security Network, at the CDA Institute webinar.

He said Canadians need to make sure they don’t spread whatever disinformation Russia or China may throw into our space on Facebook or Twitter. 

“Treat this stuff responsibly,” Saideman said.

In one blatant example of Chinese propaganda via Twitter, China Xinhua News (CXN)—which has 12.6 million followers—provides a heavily pro-Beijing view of its response to the CCP virus while lying about U.S. efforts.

Epoch Times Photo
An example of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Xinhua mischaracterizing the U.S. response to COVID-19. Disinformation expert Marcus Kolga calls it a “classic tactic.” (China Xinhua News)

The CXN Twitter feed normally tweets regular news, but it also insidiously mixes in overt disinformation. Therefore, this account appears more legitimate, but its propaganda tweets are reposted and amplified by accounts that are clearly fake—thousands of them. The disinformation tweet has been shared over 25,000 times.

“That’s like a classic tactic,” Kolga said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox on April 29 that Beijing’s disinformation campaign to shift the blame for the CCP virus outbreak is “classic communist disinformation.” 

“We know the kinds of things that communist parties do to try and manage information inside of their own country and around the world,” he said.

On May 4, he became the target of Beijing’s propaganda machine. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said, “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing venom and fabricating lies.”

Another example has a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying that it might be the U.S. Army that brought the epidemic to Wuhan.

National Problem

Canada does not have to brave uncharted waters in implementing countermeasures against the propaganda merchants.

“Canada could follow the example of Australia, who enacted a foreign agents registry just about a year ago,” Kolga said. “The U.S. has this, and it’s not really anything new.”

The United States has been the main target of Beijing’s CCP virus disinformation campaign, but Canada has been compromised as well. The democracies are just the latest in a long line of victims that includes Tibetans, intellectuals, and Falun Gong adherents.

The CCP is desperate to control the narrative on the virus and is ultra-sensitive to any criticism. It under-reported the actual number of COVID-19 cases and deaths and lied about things such as human-to-human transmission.

As the pandemic began making worldwide headlines, Western media took China’s reporting of cases and deaths as sacrosanct and said the United States had the highest number of cases.

Pressure and intimidation from the CCP has made the Canadian government reluctant to criticize Beijing, and Canada was slower than over 50 other countries in shutting down air traffic from China. Beijing actually praised Canada for doing so.

Follow Rahul on Twitter: @RV_ETBiz