In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, rewrites history at the Ministry of Truth, where he is a lowly cog in the Party’s propaganda machine manipulating Oceania’s people.
Published in 1949, the novel is a warning for the free world about totalitarianism as has been witnessed in places such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). All these regimes repress their populations through various means that include historical denialism and relentless propaganda.
Since 1984 was published, we have also seen that when such regimes gain enough power, they can also subvert other nations, especially those in the developing world, with propaganda, something witnessed with efforts by the Chinese Communist Party as highlighted recently by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
“Every country should be able to tell its story to the world. However, a nation’s narrative should be based on facts that rise and fall on its merits. The PRC employs various deceptive and coercive methods to influence the international information environment,” says a report by the center released on September 28, 2023.
According to the report, Beijing spends billions of dollars annually to manipulate global information and promote its version of digital authoritarianism.
“Beijing’s information manipulation spans propaganda, disinformation, and censorship. Unchecked, the PRC’s efforts will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing’s,” it says.
“Beijing uses false or biased information to promote positive views of the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the same time, the PRC suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement.”
The 58-page report outlines how this is done and gives examples, including how the CCP has sought significant control over Pakistan’s media and how TikTok’s owner ByteDance has sought to block potential critics of Beijing from using its platform.
“[The] PRC seeks to cultivate and uphold a global incentive structure that encourages foreign governments, elites, journalists, and civil society to accept its preferred narratives and avoid criticizing its conduct,” the report says.
“The PRC’s approach to information manipulation includes leveraging propaganda and censorship, promoting digital authoritarianism, exploiting international organizations and bilateral partnerships, pairing cooptation and pressure, and exercising control of Chinese-language media.”
The report warns that collectively, these elements could enable Beijing to reshape the global information environment, mainly as it has “acquired stakes in foreign media through public and non-public means and sponsored online influencers.”
As part of this: “Beijing has also secured sometimes restrictive content sharing agreements with local outlets that can result in trusted mastheads providing legitimacy to unlabeled or obscured PRC content,” the report says.
The report also looks at how CCP coopts prominent voices, such as foreign political elites and journalists, as part of their efforts to bolster its overseas agenda.
“Beyond focusing on content producers, the PRC has targeted platforms for global information dissemination, for example, investing in digital television services in Africa and satellite networks.”
The report also gave other examples of the direct purchase of foreign media outlets.
“The PRC augments its state-owned media apparatus and editorial control by directly purchasing foreign news outlets. For example, after a PRC conglomerate purchased a controlling stake in the Czech Republic’s Empresa Media and Medea in 2015, outlets associated with both groups ramped up favorable coverage of Beijing.
“More generally, in the decade preceding 2018, the PRC invested approximately 3 billion euros in European media properties. In some cases, the PRC has evaded media transparency rules to secure ownership of media outlets.”
The report details the online influencers employed to push the CCP’s propaganda on YouTube.
“In recent years, Beijing has used domestic influencers drawn from ethnic minorities in China to generate content for global audiences on YouTube to obscure its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet. These influencers — politically vetted and managed by professional agencies known as multi-channel networks (MCNs) — actively propagate the PRC’s preferred narratives.
These firms began to emerge in 2018, growing to about 28,000 registered companies in the PRC by 2020, and work closely in the PRC with propaganda and cyberspace authorities,” the report says.
Meanwhile, the CCP also uses manipulative social media tactics by employing bots, trolls, and coordinated campaigns among inauthentic social media accounts to boost pro-PRC content and suppress critical content, the report says.
“Through flooding — a tactic that manipulates search engine results and hashtag searches — the PRC drowns out information around sensitive topics or events with unrelated content and renders fact-based, substantive information more difficult for users to find,” the report says.
It gave an example of a CCP flooding campaign with its attempt to hijack the #GenocideGames hashtag during the 2022 Winter Olympics to marginalize efforts by foreign activists to raise awareness of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
Constraining global freedom of expression
The report further outlines how Beijing attempts to constrain global freedom of expression on sensitive issues and uses online and real-world intimidation to silence dissent and encourage self-censorship.
“The PRC has also taken measures against corporations where they are perceived to have challenged its desired narratives on issues like Xinjiang,” said of the northwest region of China, where the CCP has been accused of committing genocide against Uyghurs and primarily other Muslim ethnic groups.
“Within democratic countries, Beijing has taken advantage of open societies to take legal action to suppress critical voices. On WeChat, an application used by many Chinese-speaking communities outside the PRC, Beijing has exercised technical censorship and harassed individual content producers.”
The report warns that the CCP wants to create an emerging community of digital authoritarians.
“The PRC promotes digital authoritarianism, which involves using digital infrastructure to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news, promote disinformation, and deny other human rights. Through disseminating technologies for surveillance and censorship, often through capabilities bundled under the umbrella of ‘smart’ or ‘safe cities,’ the PRC has exported aspects of its domestic information environment globally,” the report says.
“Beijing has also propagated information control tactics, focusing on Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In parallel, the PRC has promoted authoritarian digital norms that other countries have adopted rapidly. As other countries emulate the PRC, their information ecosystems have become more receptive to Beijing’s propaganda, disinformation, and censorship requests.”
The report outlines what the future could look like if the problem is ignored.
“Unchecked, Beijing’s efforts could result in a future in which technology exported by the PRC, coopted local governments, and fear of Beijing’s direct retaliation produce a sharp contraction of global freedom of expression. Beijing would play a significant — and often hidden — role in determining the print and digital content audiences in developing countries consume.”
Advances in digital technology — global data collection and artificial intelligence — “would enable the PRC to target foreign audiences surgically and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favor,” the report says.
“In this future, the information available to the public, media, civil society, academia, and governments as they engage with the PRC could be distorted by propaganda and disinformation and circumscribed by censorship. This would pose a direct challenge to all nations that seek to predicate their relations with the PRC on fact-based assessments of their sovereign interests.
“When targeting democratic countries, Beijing has encountered major setbacks, often due to pushback from local media and civil society. Global understanding of PRC information manipulation is a starting point for a future in which the PRC’s ideas, values, and stories must compete on an even playing field,” the report says.
On the same day the report was released, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his opinion on Beijing’s broader global intentions.
They want to be “the dominant power in the world — militarily, economically, diplomatically,” Mr. Blinken said at a forum organized by Atlantic magazine, reported AFP.