Ten Years Hence: Disinformation, China, and Beijing’s Broader Global Media Influence

This week’s lecture in Ten Years Hence will feature Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House in Washington, D.C. Ms. Cook’s lecture is entitled “Disinformation, China, and Beijing’s Broader Global Media Influence.” She has written a number of special reports, articles, and books, the latest of which is China: Beijing’s Global Megaphone

Read the biography of the speaker here: Disinformation, China, and Beijing’s Broader Global Media Influence

Read the event recap, watch the video, or listen to the podcast below.


Highlights

  • In the last decade, the Chinese Communist Party’s rule in China has grown more authoritarian and its tactics of oppression have intensified. (16:56). 
  • “The flip side of propaganda is censorship, and I think that’s where you see the sharper edge of China’s sharp power.” (Sarah Cook 18:18)
  • Chinese technology firms with close ties to the Communist Party are building or acquiring content dissemination platforms in foreign countries in order to exert more influence in said countries’ information space. (19:54)
  • China is increasingly taking a page from Russia’s disinformation playbook in terms of more actively trying to sow division within and influence the domestic policies of foreign countries (28:28).
  • “We’ve seen a real awakening, both by governments but also by civil society to the very real threat [of Chinese-sponsored disinformation].” (Sarah Cook 40:09)
  • “Clearly disinformation tactics on the part of the Chinese government are here to stay and I think we’re going to see the increasing danger of them.” (Sarah Cook 42:55)
  • “A lot of this increasing repression and aggressiveness both domestically and internationally comes from a place of insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party and of Xi Jinping personally.”  (Sarah Cook 43:45)
  • China’s aggression in the information space is buttressed by its clout as the second-largest economy in the world. (46:07)
  • “Twenty years ago, there were only 15 or 20 million people who were using the Internet in China; it’s 900 million now.”   (Sarah Cook 46:07)
  • Part the reason China strongly courts smaller nations to view Beijing favorably is in order to amass enough UN votes to protect itself from legislation (for example, on human rights) that it perceives as against its interest. (50:10).

Event Recap

When people think of foreign disinformation campaigns, the textbook example that comes to mind is usually that of social media accounts run out of government-sponsored troll farms in Russia sowing fake news and division during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When it comes to this specific tactic of disinformation, Moscow is still the undisputed global leader. Although China has begun to enter the space and conduct similar operations, both its disinformation and broader media strategy have traditionally been quite different. The nature of this strategy was the topic spoken on by Sarah Cook, the Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House. 

When it comes to media operations, Cook explained, Beijing is taking an increasingly aggressive approach. Major Chinese social media apps such as WeChat are increasingly aligned with and connected to the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government is publishing more content and taking control of more outlets and platforms in foreign countries, both to disseminate positive stories about Beijing and to combat and criticize journalists and media outlets which criticize the CCP. The latter often cover human-rights abuses, treaty violations, and other behavior that casts mainland China in a bad light. 

More recently, China has taken a page from Russia’s playbook and stepped into the active disinformation campaign sphere, most notably in the leadup to the 2018 Taiwanese elections but also in other countries such as the United States, which recently was the subject of a Beijing-sponsored disinformation campaign which alleged COVID-19 was a creation of the U.S. military that was brought to Wuhan.

Although Beijing’s behavior in the media and information spheres has become much more aggressive in recent years, Cook make clear that this aggression is driven by insecurity, both of the Communist Party in general and President Xi Jinping in particular. Twenty years ago, only 15-20 million mainland Chinese had Internet access. Today, 900 million of the country’s 1.4 billion population do. With that exponential increase in access to information, the government feels the pressure both to disseminate propaganda that casts it in a positive light and censor information that portrays it negatively, as well as punish the outlets and journalists who do so. 

As was the case with Russia, social media platforms have recently woken up to the reality of the Chinese disinformation threat. Small steps such as labeling known CCP-connected accounts as Chinese state-affiliated media have helped users distinguish propaganda from fact and detect ulterior motives in posts, but democracies and free governments need to strike a balance between combating Chinese disinformation and censoring platforms and outlets in frequent use by the Chinese diaspora. Beijing has an increasingly active media and disinformation strategy, and it will require patience, nuance and a guarding against blunt overreach on the part of the United States and other democracies to counter it. 


View the discussion recorded on Friday, April 16, 2021, with Professor Jim O’Rourke and special guest Sarah Cook.


Read the event recap, watch the video, or listen to the podcast below.


Register to participate in future events.

All Ten Years Hence Recaps
BusinessLaw and PoliticsScience and TechnologyDeep LearningNewsJames O'RourkeBusiness OutlookTen Years HenceCareer DevelopmentAlumniCommunicationManagement and OrganizationMediaMendoza College of BusinessPoliticsPrivacy