War in Ukraine and Disinformation Newsletter 16 August
16 August 2022
The China Information Operations Newsletter is edited by Hannah Bailey, a researcher at the Programme on Democracy and Technology (DemTech) at Oxford University. This newsletter is a 7 minute read.
Social media users in China expressed outrage following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On Weibo, one popular hashtag declared “The U.S and Taiwan are playing with fire by forming a partnership and acting provocatively. They will burn themselves eventually” (#美台勾连挑衅玩火必自焚#). Other hashtags called for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to shoot down Pelosi’s plane. Many of these hashtags generated millions of views, and were amplified by government-affiliated groups such as the Communist Youth League of China.
But, is this vocal online nationalism helping or hurting the Chinese Communist Party? Pelosi’s visit prompted many social media users to express their support for the PLA, and for unification with Taiwan. But some social media commentators also criticised the Party, asking why, if China claims to have sovereignty over Taiwan, is it unable to control Taiwan’s airspace? Many criticised the government for not taking stronger military action, although these comments were quickly censored.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan highlights Beijing’s battle with excessive online nationalism. China’s vocal state propaganda systems and heavily censored domestic internet environment have allowed nationalism to flourish. But, in an article in Foreign Affairs, Jessica Chen Weiss argues stoking extreme nationalism can also increase the pressure for Beijing to act tough, and raises the costs of restraint.
So who is more likely to express nationalist sentiment online in China, and why? An article in the Journal of Contemporary China finds politically, economically, socially privileged groups are more likely to express nationalist pride and support unification with Taiwan. The article suggests political propaganda, individual identity and proximity to Taiwan may be potential influencing factors.
The largest known data breach has occurred in China. The breach was discovered after an anonymous user posted online offering to sell police data on nearly one billion Chinese citizens for $200,000. The data contain the names, government ID numbers, phone numbers and incident reports of Shanghai residents. The dashboard used to manage the data was reportedly available on a public web address and could be accessed without a password.
Censors have been hard at work removing any mention online of the leak. But there are signs that the leak has weakened the government’s credibility, and that the wider public are growing more distrustful of the government’s security apparatus.
The Shanghai leak underscores the value of individual data, and the scale of the ‘data power’ that China’s government wields. In the book ‘Trafficking Data’, Aynne Kokas argues that China is becoming a global leader in internet governance, and as a result, controls our data. Kokas unpacks how both the US and China ‘traffic’ user data, often without user consent, to gain political and financial advantage.
Weibo has announced it will censor homophones and “misspelled” words in an attempt to foster a “healthy” online environment. Online users in China often use Mandarin homophones to evade keyword-censorship algorithms. These homophones are frequently used to express vulgar language or to mobilise around politically sensitive issues. On a related note and amidst growing tension with Taiwan, Weibo has also announced it will no longer operate in the region.
But how effective is online censorship in preventing foreign content from becoming accessible in China? An article in The International Journal of Press/Politics finds that approximately one-fourth of popular content on Twitter with relevance to China then appears on Weibo. Interestingly, Weibo users without media or government affiliations contribute to this spread of information from international platforms, alongside Chinese state-controlled media and other domestic media outlets.
Amidst growing censorship, social media users in China are increasingly using Mastodon, a Twitter and Weibo alternative. Following policy changes in April requiring users to confirm their identities and publicly display their IP addresses, many Chinese-speaking users are switching to Mastodon, a new microblogging network based on open-source software.
China is aggressively regulating deepfakes – but why? An article in Nature Machine Intelligence outlines why China’s deepfake regulations are more advanced than the US and the EU. A combination of: (1) fewer free speech protections: (2) existing real-name verification infrastructure; and (3) a political system more dependent on internet censorship has enabled China to better regulate ‘synthetic content’.
A large-scale analysis of social media data reveals how CCP-backed information operations deny, distract and deter critical Xinjiang narratives on international social media platforms. Manipulation tactics such as ‘whataboutism’, ‘sentiment mobilisation’ (情感动员) and ‘sentiment coercion’ (情感胁迫) effectively deflected criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang. Inauthentic amplification also contributed to the success of the information operations.
China’s international propaganda has changed narratives. An article in the Journal of Contemporary China unpacks how China’s external propaganda has switched from promoting soft narratives about China’s “traditional culture” to projecting the image of a strong, great power. The authors note that external propaganda can also fuel nationalism among domestic audiences, but that stronger nationalist messaging is less persuasive for international audiences.
The Chinese government requested that TikTok provide a stealth account for propaganda campaigns. TikTok reportedly “declined to offer support for the request”. Meanwhile, the British parliament shut down its TikTok account just six days after its creation following concerns about data security.
A note to readers – while the readership of the DemTech China Information Operations Newsletter has steadily grown, for reasons of funding the final edition of this newsletter will be issued in September. After September for further updates please follow me on Twitter @Hannah_LSBailey.