Tag Archives: Social Media

Let A Hundred Tweets Bloom

Beijing’s propaganda playbook on social media is changing, influenced by US President Donald Trump’s combat tweeting and Russia’s holistic infowar strategy of sowing doubt, distrust and distraction.

This Bystander has been mulling the lessons that might have been learned from Trump’s realization earlier than most populist politicians that repeating a lie often enough makes it true is an outdated concept.

Perhaps because of his experience with reality television, Trump grasped that reality is an artifice that can be created. And if created once, why not multiple times? In such a world, if anything can be true, nothing needs to be.

Alternative and multiple versions of reality can be created by the simple mechanism of hypothetical questions that are impossible to refute absolutely, no matter how incredible their premise. More importantly, they provide an envelope in which to carry that premise in the direction of plausibility. For the politician, there is an additional attraction: any idea can be floated and promoted without responsibility having to be taken for holding or endorsing it.

The controversy over the tweet in which Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the foreign ministry’s Information Department, said “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” is a case in point. It is just as hypothetical a suggestion as that of US senator Tom Cotton that there was a need to investigate whether the virus escaped from a Chinese bioweapons lab in Wuhan.

Zhao’s tweet was not the first time that China has pushed the narrative that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated outside of China. The implication is that it is the United States that has to offer China the explanation for what has become a global pandemic; that the responsibility lies elsewhere than China’s wet markets.

This is being continued by the Global Times, the stridently nationalistic English-language publication of the People’s Daily. It is highlighting an online petition to the US government that speculatively connects the SARS-CoV 2 virus to the US Army’s medical research centre for infectious diseases at Ft. Detrick that was closed last year. US citizens have a constitutional right to petition their government and do so on a variety of issues profound and quixotic. The Ft. Detrick petition has attracted barely 450 signatures, well short of the 100,000 needed for the White House to respond.

The conclusion of all this is that while once the rest of the world could expect a unified line from China on any issue, in future, it will have to cope with multiple lines, some conflicting, many false, others partially true, but all undermining the credibility of the fundamental truth.

In the information age, pre-emption in the world of ideas becomes a pillar of national security. As Russia’s information warriors have shown, just sowing confusion and uncertainty can be enough. The creation and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation are at the heart of Russia’s offensive infowar strategy.

An example of this came in the foreign ministry’s daily briefing for foreign correspondents. In response to a question asking for a response to Zhao’s suggestion that the US Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan, spokesman Geng Shuang said:

In recent days we noticed many discussions on the origin of the COVID-19. We firmly oppose the unfounded and irresponsible comments made by certain high-level US officials and Congress members on this issue to smear and attack China. The fact is, there are different opinions in the US and among the larger international community on the origin of the virus. China believes it’s a matter of science which requires professional and science-based assessment.

Even though Twitter is banned within China, Chinese officials have taken to the platform fulsomely of late, with Zhao prominent among them, as Beijing’s intensifies its policy to control the international narrative about China. This is a sophisticated and well-funded operation, already being pushed back against by Washington, that includes owning foreign media, sponsoring journalistic coverage and a cadre of ‘talking heads’ around the world who can be relied upon to ‘tell China’s story well’ whenever local media outlets come calling.

Febrile social media offers the perfect environment for such a strategy to flourish, as Trump has so deftly proved with his combat tweeting. We should expect more and more of the same from China’s diplomats.


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China’s Social Media Propagandists Limber Up For US Elections

WORD ARRIVES FROM our man in Washington about the growing concern there about China’s expanding disinformation campaign targeted at the United States.

Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have taken down accounts on their social media platforms they say are linked to Chinese state interests and that have been seeking to discredit Hong Kong protestors. Twitter and Google have also said they would no longer sell advertising space to media that are financially and editorially controlled by nation-states. Netizens in China have accused the US social platforms of political censorship.

In Washington, the disinformation campaign over Hong Kong is being perceived as the first significant social media-based disinformation campaign that China has geared toward US audiences. The accounts Twitter disabled are a mix of bot- and human-based ones, with some dating back to 2009, suggesting long-standing preparation. The concern among lawmakers in the United States is that this is a dry run for Beijing’s propagandists for the 2020 US presidential and Congressional elections.

That offers the unpredictable prospect of both China and Russia meddling in a US election, but possibly on different sides, with Moscow supportive of US President Donald Trump and Beijing taking the opposite tack, although Democrats are no longer as dovish on China as they once were.

Both, though, are likely to contribute to the declining US confidence in its democratic institutions, which may be success enough in Moscow and Beijing.

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China Systematically Cracks Down On The Internet

IT IS EASY to assume that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)’s investigations into three of the country’s leading social media platforms are just a tightening of censorship typically to be expected ahead of the forthcoming Party congress.

Tencent Holdings’ messaging app WeChat, Sina’s Twitter-like service Weibo, and Baidu’s communication forum Tieba face complaints that they have allowed their users to spread terror-related material, rumours and obscenities, breaches of the law that “endangered national security, public security and social order”.

But there is a more systematic effort to control information in play.

The new cybersecurity law that took effect on June 1 and of which the social media platforms have fallen foul as it makes online platforms responsible for the content they carry, is the third piece of recent legislation codifying China’s doctrine of cyber-sovereignty.  The National Security Law and the Anti-Terrorism Law, both passed in 2015, are the other two.

Collectively they form the basis of Beijing’s intended state control of the internet, which, in turn, is part of the greater crackdown on incipient dissent.

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Protecting China’s New Economy

IF EVER THERE was an example of the West fighting the last war, it is over whether China is a ‘market economy’ in the eyes of the European Union. European steelmakers have been on the streets of Europe to support the case that it isn’t. China, however, has moved on to protecting its new economy.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in concert with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has published new rules for internet content providers. These set strict new guidelines for what can be published online, and what content—and which publishers—require prior approval from authorities.

“Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services,” the rules say, adding that any ‘online publication service units’ need to get prior approval from SARFT if they want to cooperate on a project with any foreign company, joint venture, or individual.

All content providers will also be required to host their data on local servers and be forbidden to store it on related servers and storage devices outside China.

The initial reaction outside China has been to see this as part of the strengthening central control over the media, and the creative industries generally, in line with President Xi Jinping’s broader centralization of authority and notions of soft power. Xi has just completed an inspection tour of leading state media to reinforce the message that they are there to be an instrument of the Party.

That, in itself, is nothing new, even if the emphasis on Chinese media gaining a louder voice on the international stage and “telling China’s story well” is.  However, the bluntness with which Xi underscored that state news media must “work to protect the Party’s authority and unity” and be the government and Party’s “publicity front” has not been heard for some time. Xi’s use of the word ‘struggle’ in the press’s role particularly harkens back to earlier times.

Western news providers such as Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and the New York Times are likely targets of the new rules. But so, too, are some of the fast growing non-state media companies that have flourished online through providing entertainment. The Party now wants to bring such outlets more under its sway in the way that traditional non-party media are circumscribed.

In the same vein, further targets include foreign game companies like Sony and Microsoft, and Hollywood studios and distributors that might introduce subversive—or even just foreign—ideas into the country through films, TV shows and other works of popular art.

However, the widely overlooked significance of the new rules is that they do not just tightly constrain China as a market for foreign news outlets, publishers and entertainment companies. They apply to all providers of online content.

That could include payments and e-commerce companies. Any foreign firm, such as Apple, Amazon or Alphabet (née Google), that might challenge China’s entrenched e-commerce giants is at risk.

That fits well with the notions of online national sovereignty that Xi outlined last December during a defense of online censorship in a speech to the Global Internet Conference, a meeting of a couple of dozen countries convened by China in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province.

As ever, how Chinese authorities implement the new rules — and how selectively — will determine how restrictive they are — and who gets restricted. Chinese laws are usually vague and broad to that end, if always with laser-focused purpose.

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China Finds Justification For Social Media Censorship In UK Riots

Never waste a crisis, they say, even one not your own. China’s state media have been quick to jump on remarks by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of England’s “mass incidents” of recent days on the need to control the use of social media that were used to organize the riots and looting. From an article on Xinhua, entitled “Britain’s U-turn over web-monitoring“:

Learning a hard lesson from bitter experience, the British government eventually recognized that a balance needs to be struck between freedom and the monitoring of social media tools….

..the Internet is also a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. For the benefit of the general public, proper web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary.

Just saying.

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Battling The Google Hegemony

Google as a modern-day British East India Company, exercising imperial hegemony in the American interest, is the theme of an editorial by Zheng Yan, published by the People’s Daily at the end of last week and widely reposted on local websites such as QQ since (English translation via China Media Project). The author, identified near anonymously as “a web user”, touches on a well-scratched nerve of national shame, but the piece is worth a read as it more than just another knock at the American search and media company. It represents yet more string to the nationalist bow, a perspective of social media held in Party circles not as a liberating force but as a tool of national interest, and another Orwellian reason that freedom lovers should stand in the way of Google’s world domination. In its corner, China stands ready to fight the good fight.


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Li Ka-shing, Facebook and QQ

East Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, has pumped another $60 million into the social networking site Facebook run by Mark Zuckerberg, a fellow billionaire if one less than a third Li’s age.

Li said during a Hutchison Whampoa earnings conference call on Thursday that he was upping his previous $60 million investment, made last November and which gave him 0.4% of the company. But he didn’t say by how much, and clearly no one thought to ask him. Reuters has now run down a number.

What does Li hope to get for his $120 million? One clue comes from what he said on Thursday, that he saw some synergy between Facebook and the 3G services of Hutch’s mobile phone business. That makes some sense given that China has 465 million mobile phone users but only 172 million Web ones.

And while Facebook is having a hard time figuring out how to make money out of all the users of its Web site, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to make money off IM and SMS mobile phone services. Just look at Tencent/QQ. In 2007, at $523 million, it had four times Facebook’s revenue, with a fifth of that coming from mobile services. Tencent also reported a $224 million operating profit last year. Facebook lost $50 million.

Li has a head that is both old and wise. If he can crack the China market for Facebook that $15 billion valuation on Zuckerberg’s site won’t look quite so mind-boggling.

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