The Chinese government uses many of its state-run media to implant in the U.S. internet a “distorted and biased narrative portraying a utopian view of the Chinese government and party.” The propaganda is intended to undermine western values that China deems would erode party domination. It uses paid social media posters to place propaganda and the “likes” and “shares” of co-workers. It also places propaganda articles from Xinhua (posing as a wire service like Reuters), China’s People’s Daily, and other state-controlled news services. The misinformation is usually an upbeat yarn of China’s virtue and role in global affairs. China’s propaganda is meant to convince western consumers that it can be a constructive friend and trade partner.
A study by professors at Harvard, Stanford, and UC San Diego determined that one in every 178 Chinese social media posts were fabricated by the government. Another study by researchers in Michigan determined that one post in six was placed by the government. China is convinced that propaganda works to alter attitudes among western audiences, although it has not yet sought to alter U.S. election outcomes.
At home, China uses surveillance of its population as a heavy-handed tool of social control. It is racing to impose a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance through artificial intelligence, data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all of its citizens. China’s communist party-state is thought to have 500,000 employees working on surveillance and the development of a “citizen score” to incentivize “good” behavior. A vast accompanying network of surveillance cameras constantly monitors citizens’ movements. With audio pickup added, it could analyze conversations too.
China currently operates 176 million surveillance cameras and plans to increase the number to 450 million by 2020, or one camera per three Chinese people. Beijing is already blanketed with cameras that capture dissident’s behaviors and “erroneous thoughts.” China’s government constantly monitors the cell phones and social media of human-rights activists in the name of “stability maintenance.”
China’s goal in western internet influence is to burnish the legitimacy of “China’s role in the world as a global player, and at the same time to undermine traditional American values (like the freedoms of press, assembly, and religion) that Chinese leadership view as threatening to their own system of authoritarian rule.”
China’s state-owned social media accounts posted 60 to 100 times per day on western social media during late 2018 and early 2019. Xinhua and People’s Daily posted about 26 times per day on Instagram and other social media. Their articles are “soft” and feature China’s natural beauty, appealing cultural events, foreign trips of leaders and important visitors. Their hope is to paint a Chinese mystique that westerners would regard as endearing.
The half million Chinese government workers in propaganda and communications technology give China powerful options for military uses, such as sophisticated malware, distributed denials of service, and protection against attack. China’s skilled IT technicians can moonlight in commercial theft and extortion in both the U.S. (e.g. Marriott Hotels, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and in China (e.g. Huazhu Hotels).
American audiences may have heard about China’s hacking activities, but they have heard little about China’s propaganda campaigns. China’s internet propaganda could help it gain favorable terms of trade with both the U.S. and its neighbors, all without lightening up on the heavy-handed social controls and underhanded access to other nation’s intellectual property. When China denies U.S. consumers access to the truth about its behaviors and public policies, it can harm us.