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Chinese Trolls Show That Information Can’t Be Stopped, Nor Should It Be

Beijing has been engaged in a battle for public opinion for several years, aggressively promoting a positive vision of China to counter criticisms for its involvement in human rights violations, intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, its engagement with Taiwan and the South China Sea disputes, and its suspected involvement in the COVID-19 outbreak.  In 2017, senior Party leaders acknowledged that “the main battlefield for public opinion” occurs on the extensive borderless Internet where people receive their news, express their thoughts, and promote and argue their political and ideological viewpoints.  Beijing understands how the Internet is essential in disseminating China-friendly narratives, while at the same time deflecting criticisms and reassigning blame.  In essence, it is how Beijing seeks to preserve its image while tarnishing those of others.

China’s emergence as a cyber power is rooted in its understanding of the importance of information as a political, social, and economic tool.  In an information age, being able to create, control, and disseminate information and how it is used and delivered puts a government ahead of its competitors.  In step with this belief, Beijing has been actively involved in asserting itself in all facets of the cyber domain trying to influence everything from global norms for state conduct in cyberspace, to Internet governance, to promoting state cyber sovereignty, and trying to dominate global 5G implementation.  Beijing observed how potent social media and online activity played in influencing audiences in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections as politically and socially charged issues sowed discord. It was evident that tactical and strategic goals could be achieved with an organized online cadre taking guidance from leadership.

Beijing has a long history of conducting psychological operations meant to target audiences and address what it terms “requirements for the international struggle” – a broad phrase that encompasses political, military, economic, and cultural challenges.  Per one think tank focusing on Chinese affairs, the Chinese Communist Party engaged in public opinion management throughout 2000s, with 2015 being a key milestone when the government mandated that Chinese universities recruit network commentators it termed “network civilization volunteers.”  Fast forward to today, and the number of these full and part-time network civilization volunteers is estimated at 20 million (a marked increase from previous 2017 estimates of two million) who serve to amplify online favorable views of China while deflecting criticism, and choking out negative perceptions.

The recruitment and implementation of a primarily civilian force has clear roots in China’s “People’s War” philosophy – Mao Zedong’s protracted war strategy that harnesses “China’s populace as a source of political legitimacy and generate military power.”  Such a concept is not reserved strictly for military defense but is continually refined to suit Beijing’s strategic needs.  China already has the largest standing military and does not need its civilians to be prepared for combat any time in the foreseeable future.  However, Chinese civilians, particularly its foreign diaspora, provide robust capabilities Beijing can leverage for a variety of nonmilitary functions to include intelligence collection and use of such entities as Confucius Institutes to disseminate pro-China propaganda and influence policymaking in foreign countries.  The Internet is just another way to leverage a willing civilian workforce to support state objectives.

Whether termed “network civilization volunteers” or “Internet trolls,” China’s civilian online presence has proved itself a force with which to be reckoned.  The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how these individuals have mobilized under government guidance to mitigate potential fallout from China’s suspected involvement in the leak of the virus.  Leaked documents have emerged showing Beijing’s hand in controlling the narrative to influence international opinion. Approximately 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos were obtained by an independent news outlet exposing the guidance provided to Chinese media organizations, as well as Internet trolls, to prevent panic, debunk counter narratives, and more importantly, reinforce state ideology.  For at least a year this approach seemed to succeed, especially in the United States whose media continued to endorse COVID’s origin-in-nature theory, until more suspicious information regarding a possible lab leak in Wuhan surfaced that put Beijing back under the microscope.

This cadre is proving more than a nuisance, taking on every story that threatens to put China in a negative light.  Indeed, the use of “troll” is a misnomer incorrectly projecting these individuals as a small discontent group, rather than an organized online army. Given the current climate regarding the above-mentioned issues where criticism has been directed at Beijing, this force is very active.  According to a 2016 news report, Chinese Internet trolls were producing 488 million social media posts a year.  Five years later, that number has only increased.  What’s more, since Xi Jinping assumed the mantel of power, China has adopted a more aggressive posture in the world.  Unsurprisingly, this has carried over into the cyber arena as well. According to one think tank, multiple articles in the journal of China’s Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (a policy formulation and implementation body for the purpose of managing internet-related issues) discussed how China needed to win soft-power competition in order to seize the international discourse power and influence international public opinion.  Releasing the proverbial “digital hounds” appears to be Beijing’s plan to suffocate criticisms directed against China, and it has invested in using this near-limitless personnel resources for the front lines of this messaging effort.

While there may be some that believe “trolling” is essentially harmless, it is actually an ingenious strategy for a government that believes that information control is essential to maintaining regime security.  The extent with which this activity played in influencing voters in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections remains uncertain; however, the fact that adversaries like China, Iran, and Russia have concerted efforts to promulgate this type of online discourse certainly suggests there is benefit in doing so.  The global population’s Internet dependence for news and conversation has made this capability a useful way to socialize and circulate messaging, a fact not lost on Beijing.

What’s more, it exploits the very right democracies hold most dear to their hearts – freedom of speech.  “Fake news” is not a viable argument for those seeking to curb trolling activities via censorship.  The Constitution’s First Amendment does not exclude propaganda, lies, or partial truths from this inherent right.  And this is where authoritarian regimes like China, Iran, and Russia have the upper hand, censoring inside their borders while free to operate such campaigns outside their respective information spaces.  In this way, they almost dare democracies to follow suit, censoring the very speech they have long cherished and surrendering their moral superiority in favor of protecting its national interests.

Besides, social media censorship is a lazy solution.  The U.S. public has long taken for granted freedom of speech, failing to responsibly produce and consume it.  This must change.  As any authoritarian regime knows, the flow of information cannot be stopped or controlled perfectly despite the most draconian of measures.  Information will find an outlet and it is incumbent on everyone to determine where to access it, what to question, what to confirm, and what to ignore.  Relying on government to do the work that citizens should be doing is playing into our adversaries’ hands, helping them weaken our most ardent of democratic pillars. The only way to weaken troll behavior and take away its power is by people demonstrating the ability to think independently and critically, thereby positioning themselves to be better discerning consumers. It remains to be determined if they have the desire and willingness to do so.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.