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from Trump’s realization earlier than most populist politicians that repeating a lie often enough makes it true is an outdated concept.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.