China is pouring billions of dollars into efforts to change the world’s information environment and ultimately undermine the will of many countries for Beijing’s benefit, according to a new analysis by a US official.
The report, released Thursday by the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement, accused the Chinese government of using a combination of tactics to try to create a world in which Beijing, overtly or implicitly, controls the flow of information.
China’s goal is to “develop an information ecosystem where PRC propaganda and disinformation gain strength and become dominant,” the report said.
“If left unchecked, the PRC’s efforts will change the world’s information landscape, creating biases and gaps that may even lead countries to make decisions that subordinate Beijing’s economic and security interests.”
This is not the first time US officials have warned about China’s attempts to sow information around the United States and its allies.
US officials said in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic that China increasingly used social media to spread disinformation about the origin of the virus.
Just a year ago, in its annual threat assessment, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Beijing “will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence.”.
And US officials have repeatedly warned of Chinese influence campaigns aimed at creating doubt about US elections, and some have expressed concern about China’s attempts to influence the results.
But a new State Department report argues that what US officials now see is different: that China’s information manipulation efforts have become little more than specific campaigns focused on a specific issue. or event.
However, he argues that Beijing’s efforts have greater ambitions.
If successful, “Beijing will develop an operational capacity to shape the information used by certain groups and even individuals,” the report said. “In this possible future, the information available to the public, media, civil society, academia, and governments in their relationship with the People’s Republic of China may be distorted.”
China says it is a control mechanism
Chinese government officials declined to comment on the details of the State Department report. But in an email to Voice of AmericaChinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu called the report “just a tool to continue to scrutinize China and support American hegemony.”
“A quick look at the summary (of the report) is enough to see what it is: intensifying ideological confrontation, spreading disinformation, and undermining China’s internal and external policies,” Liu said. “We urge the United States to reflect on itself and stop blaming China for the so-called ‘information manipulation.'”
The State Department report said its conclusions were based on publicly available information as well as “recently obtained government information.”
“As the PRC grows more confident in its power, it appears calculated that it will be able to pursue its interests more aggressively,” he said.
Specifically, the report notes a multi-pronged approach that combines its extensive state media, surveillance technologies, financial and political pressure, and Chinese-language media.
The result is an information ecosystem where bots and trolls, and even officials, amplify pro-Beijing voices while drowning out or stifling opponents.
However, the report warns that many of China’s efforts have so far struggled to achieve the desired impact on Western and Western-dependent countries.
“In attacking democratic countries, Beijing has encountered major setbacks, mostly due to backlash from local media and civil society,” the report said. “Although they have unparalleled resources, the PRC’s propaganda and censorship have, so far, yielded mixed results.”
That assessment is consistent with the findings of Meta, the social media company behind Facebook and Instagram, which in August announced the dismantling of a disinformation operation linked to China known as Spamouflage.
Meta said that while Spamouflage is “the largest multi-platform covert influence operation known to the world,” Beijing is getting little for its money.
“Despite the large number of accounts and platforms it uses, Spamouflage has always struggled to reach beyond its own (false) echo chamber,” Meta said. “Only a few cases have been reported where spam content on Twitter and YouTube has been amplified by real-world influencers.”
Wake up call
Some researchers say Beijing has made some progress in the West.
“China’s most successful influence efforts have always been smaller in scale and more targeted, such as efforts to harass dissidents and critics,” he said in VOA via email from Bret Schafer, a member of the Washington-based Alliance to Secure Democracy.
Schafer even described Spamouflage as a “good wake-up call.”
“It reminds the world that China is investing time and resources to manipulate the information environment,” he said.
And there are signs that China is becoming more sophisticated.
A report from Microsoft earlier this month suggested that China’s disinformation efforts are successfully using artificial intelligence to create “eye-catching content.”
“This relatively high-quality visual content has already attracted higher levels of engagement from real social media users,” Microsoft said in its report. “Users are reposting these images with increasing frequency, despite the common signs of AI generation.”
This use of artificial intelligence is a particular concern for US intelligence officials.
“Russia, China, and others will try to use this technology,” General Paul Nakasone told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday when asked about AI and the upcoming US presidential election. Nakasone heads the US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.
Some in the NSA see China gaining ground and influence and are prepared to use that influence if necessary.
“They are increasing influence in the global social media environment,” David Frederick, the NSA’s deputy assistant director for China, said in a webinar earlier this month. “That would allow them to do a lot of information operations on a very large scale in the event of a conflict.”