Download White Paper: "Telling China's Story"
Today the Stanford Internet Observatory published a joint white paper with the Hoover Institution examining China’s covert and overt capabilities in the context of modern information operations. Much of the attention to state-sponsored influence practices in recent years has focused on social media activity, particularly as social network companies have announced takedowns of accounts linked to state-backed operations. However, state-sponsored operations are broader than social media. Countries including Russia, China and Iran have demonstrated the ability to operate a full-spectrum capability set that spans both traditional and social media ecosystems.
While some of the technologies leveraged towards today’s information campaigns are new, the strategies are well-established. In the case of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) relies on an extensive influence apparatus that spans a range of print and broadcast media, with varying degrees of attributability, to advance both its domestic monopoly on power and its claims to global leadership. This apparatus draws on nearly a century of experience running information operations.
Our white paper explores the impact of technological innovations on these established strategies and tactics, asking the question: what is the scope and nature of China’s overt and covert capabilities, and how do they complement one another? We evaluate China’s capabilities through three timely case studies: 1) Hong Kong's 2019-2020 protests; 2) Taiwan’s January 2020 election; and 3) the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand how China’s abilities compare to those of other powers, we contrast China’s activities with Russia’s.
China’s overt propaganda apparatus is robust, and managing both inward and outward-facing messaging remains a top priority for the CCP. This apparatus rests on the two pillars of the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and the United Front, which coordinates with state organs and manages influence groups outside the party. Under Xi Jinping, their work has taken on a new urgency; in 2018, the CCP tightened party control of the media by shifting direct oversight of print publications, film, press, and key broadcast properties to the CPD. Similarly, Xi Jinping has energized the United Front Work Department’s operations, reportedly adding 40,000 officials to its roster and elevating it to the top tier of party organs.
- China’s overt messaging efforts span both broadcast and social media. Domestically, since the mid-2000s, the CCP has been replacing editors and publishers at many of the more popular media outlets to reassert control over domestic information. Internationally, overt infrastructure includes (but is not limited to) regionalized and language-specific traditional media channels, media presence on social media, and prominent-figure influencer accounts with millions of followers on Western social media platforms.
In addition to its extensive overt capabilities, China has less-attributable or unattributable communication options that it can draw on to influence opinions. These include content farms, ‘astroturf’ commenter brigades, and fabricated accounts and personas on social media channels. Perhaps the most famous of China’s more covert domestic influence capabilities is the digital commenter brigade known as Wumao, or “50 Cent Party.” Additionally, for the first time in August 2019, clusters of fake accounts and content were concretely attributed to the CCP by several tech companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In the whitepaper, we present three case studies that illustrate how China uses these full-spectrum capabilities:
China has attempted to influence global perception of the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests through tightly aligned state media networks and fake account activity on Western social media platforms. Both overt state media outlets and fake personas aimed to shape the global perception of the protesters and project that the CCP’s control over Hong Kong was not in jeopardy.
To promote preferred narratives on the 2020 Taiwanese election, China deployed influence capabilities across both traditional media and social media, aligning messaging between Chinese state media and Beijing-friendly Taiwanese media. In addition, unattributable content farms active on Facebook and the LINE messaging app, as well as dubious YouTube channels, created and amplified misinformation, including rumors about incumbent presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Fake Twitter accounts further amplified CCP talking points on divisive topics.
China’s influence strategy on COVID-19 has involved a full spectrum of overt and covert tactics, which has included domestic censorship, English-language state media messaging bolstered by Facebook ads, and the use of fake accounts to influence conversations on Western social media platforms. English-language state media Facebook Pages and Twitter accounts, as well as Chinese diplomats and embassies, took part in an overt messaging effort to amplify the CCP’s preferred narratives on COVID-19. Covert state-sponsored activity leveraging fake Twitter accounts paralleled these efforts, praising the CCP’s pandemic response and criticizing the responses of other actors, such as the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
- We additionally examined these capabilities in context, particularly given U.S. media comparisons between “the Russia playbook” and China’s activities. While China and Russia overlap in capabilities, there are important differences in their goals, strategy, and tactical execution. They have different core operational objectives: China is focused on a strategic mission of establishing the country as a leader in the international order and maintaining positive global opinion. Russia, meanwhile, seeks to create a positive perception in regions it prioritizes for strategic relationships, but it more aggressively works to erode the international perception and domestic social cohesion of its rivals. Both countries have amassed prominent overt Facebook Pages and YouTube channels targeting regionalized audiences, though the use of those pages diverges in service to their differing objectives. Additionally, both actors have run fake Facebook pages and Twitter persona accounts. However, the execution of this covert strategy varies significantly: Russia’s covert operations include sophisticated personas informed by ethnographic research, and development of relationships with influencers (enabling them to reach their audience and amplify their content). China’s own efforts to leverage fake personas have resulted in unsophisticated accounts, far less engagement, and no clear influencer amplification.
China’s longstanding commitment to managing narratives means that it will likely continue to learn, iterate and adapt. Via this report, we offer an analysis of its evolving capabilities, how they are leveraged, and how this evolution may continue.