Forecasting Synergies in Chinese and Russia Digital Influence Operations
Amid the global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on countries around the world, China and Russia’s digital influence campaigns are converging. Several accounts of China’s information operations have noted the incorporation of Russian tactics. Yet the full significance of this development cannot be understood without appreciating the broader alignment between Russia and China. In other words, China’s adoption of Russian information operation techniques is more than the passive diffusion of such practices from one authoritarian regime to the next.1 Instead, Russia and China are deepening ties and are increasingly aligned on a range of issues. Simply put, the deepening relationship between Russia and China means that their alignment and coordination in the information space is likely to endure.
Muddying the waters
As the pandemic’s spread continues unabated in many parts of the world, Russian government-funded outlets such as RT have played an endless reel of news stories indicating that American officials have exploited the outbreak for their personal gain and that the US government has politicized assistance to hard-stricken countries. RT has portrayed Russia and China, in contrast, as having stepped up to fill the void of needed aid.2 Preliminary analysis also indicates that thousands of social media accounts—which Russian state actors potentially amplified—were propagating false information about the COVID-19 outbreak, including a conspiracy theory that the US Department of Defense had generated the virus as an agent of biological warfare against China.3
Meanwhile, Chinese state actors picked up the threads of fringe conspiracy theories implicating the United States and other democracies for instigating the spread of the virus. Beijing simultaneously launched a full-throated effort to shape the narrative about the pandemic domestically and abroad. In one particularly sophisticated scheme, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department circulated fabricated scientific journal articles on Twitter detailing how the US Army had manufactured the COVID-19 virus in its biodefense labs and that American soldiers had brought the virus over to China during the World Military Games last October.4 Other reports by Chinese state media suggested that cases of the virus had originally appeared in Italy before it emerged in Wuhan, China.5
This deafening symphony of false narratives ultimately created an opening for Beijing to recast itself as the global leader in combatting the very pandemic it failed to contain. Chinese diplomats took their case to Twitter, using a wide repertoire of formats—including crudely doctored or staged video clips featuring citizens in countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa expressing gratitude to China for their provision of medical goods—to favorably portray Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.6
Few countries have felt the brunt of China’s online influence operations at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic more acutely than Italy. In a two-week period in March 2020, for example, nearly 50,000 tweets flooded the Twittersphere with pro-China hashtags.7 Notably, nearly half of the Tweets featuring the hashtag “forzaCinaeItalia” (“Go China, go Italy”) and more than a third of the Tweets with the hashtag “grazieCina” (“thank you China”) stemmed from bots—a quintessentially Russian tool that Chinese information operations have also increasingly leveraged—that generated an average of more than 50 tweets per day, extolling Beijing’s response to the pandemic.8 Collectively, these comprehensive and well-coordinated information operations were aimed at bolstering China’s standing as a net provider of public goods.
The role of digital influence operations in China and Russia’s foreign policy toolkits
China and Russia both view their ability to shape the information environment beyond their borders as critical to advancing their core interests and have thus significantly invested in their capacity to do so globally. For Russia, information warfare is a central pillar of the Kremlin’s more assertive foreign policy. While propaganda has long been part of the Kremlin’s arsenal—playing a prominent role throughout the Cold War, Russia’s conflict with Georgia in 2008 marked an important turning point in the Kremlin’s use of information warfare. The Kremlin perceived that Russia lost the battle over the narrative of events in Georgia, underscoring for Moscow the importance of being able to advance Russia’s worldview.
The Russian leadership today views the information domain as one of the most important arenas in which states compete.9 Moreover, Russian leaders do not view their hybrid tactics, including information warfare, as being separate from their conventional military capabilities. Instead, Russia uses information warfare across the full spectrum of conflict and competition between states, including during peacetime. Russia’s digital influence operations—part of its information warfare arsenal—seek to shape the attitudes and policy preferences of an adversary’s political activists and military and civilian populations. Russia uses digital tools to exert influence and change the political dynamics within countries whose policies are contrary to Russian interests.
Russian information operations have evolved from the time of the Cold War to capitalize on the contemporary information environment. Russian digital influence activities have proliferated across various ministries and agencies of the government as well as among private actors. Some analysts have described the web-like structure of Russian operations, encompassing its intelligence community, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and proxies such as the Russian Internet Research Agency, which serves as a primary purveyor of curated content and false information on social media platforms.10 And while the Russian Presidential Administration broadly dictates the direction of Russian campaigns based on its priorities and agenda, individual actors within this web have considerable latitude to implement the campaigns as they see fit. In other words, Russian leadership sets the overall direction of Russian digital influence activities, but Russian-backed actors often compete to advance these broad directives and have the latitude to act opportunistically and to adapt to local conditions as needed.11
Beijing, too, has long viewed control over ideas as a core tenet of China’s national power. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly sought to apply these concepts of control beyond its borders, and its efforts to shape the global online information environment have gained prominence in the CCP’s foreign policy agenda in the last decade. Dating back to the late 2000s at the height of Hu Jintao’s leadership, the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD) sharpened its focus on the global “competition for news and public opinion” and “the contest over discourse power” through the “innovation of news propaganda.”12 Shortly after becoming the General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping reiterated at the August 2013 National Meeting on Propaganda and Ideology that China needed to “strengthen media coverage…use innovative outreach methods…tell a good Chinese story, and promote China’s views internationally.”13 A 2013 meeting of the CPD14 reiterated that shaping online public opinion was an area of “highest priority” for the Party.15
Through propaganda, censorship, and strategically motivated economic coercion,16 Beijing has sought to tighten its chokehold on self-proclaimed “core interests” such as Taiwan; forestall international criticism of its policies toward Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang; and promulgate narratives about its global leadership.17 A wide range of state actors have a hand in these efforts, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, State Council Information Office, the Central Foreign Affairs Office, the United Work Front Department, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Cyber Administration of China.18 Additionally, on the military side, the reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 201519 and the consolidation of its cyber capabilities into a single service generated significant momentum for Beijing’s concept of “information warfare,” including through the development and deployment of new platforms.20
Different but converging approaches to digital interference
Despite Beijing and Moscow’s prioritization of shaping the information space, their tactics in executing their digital influence campaigns have diverged in important ways. But while some differences in their approach to digital influence are likely to persist, there is growing evidence that the two countries are learning from one another and enhancing their coordination, leading to greater convergence in their digital influence efforts.
Risk-acceptant versus incremental
In general, Russia has been more confrontational and brazen in its approach to digital influence than China, although these lines are being blurred amid more recent geopolitical developments such as the COVID-19 global pandemic. President Putin is keenly aware that Russian power will decline. By going on the offensive, including through efforts to manipulate the information environment, the Kremlin seeks to influence the rules of the game while it still has the ability to do so. This urgency and the Kremlin’s desire to rewrite the rules of the game mean that Moscow is more risk acceptant in its digital influence operations.
Beijing, in contrast, has pursued a more incremental, and diffuse strategy, not unlike the gradually unfolding approach it has deployed in areas such as the South China Sea. The CCP is operating on a longer time horizon than the Putin regime as it perceives its power and influence to be on an upward trajectory. It is, therefore, spreading the tendrils of its influence slowly and systematically, marshaling multiple vectors of influence as part of a whole-of-society effort, ranging from popularizing Chinese-designed viral apps to coopting bodies governing cyberspace in international organizations.
Destructive versus constructive
Relatedly, China’s digital influence operations seek to offer a more affirmative agenda than Russian operations, which are most often destructive and disruptive. For Moscow, the goal is often to discredit the United States and other Western democracies. Russian state and nonstate actors seek to spread disinformation, sow confusion, and exploit divisions to polarize public debates, including through amplification of hyper-partisan social media accounts.21 For example, Russian trolls working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) continue to seek to amplify racial divisions in the United States ahead of the 2020 elections, in large part to inflame divisions among Americans and provoke social unrest.22 In these ways, the Kremlin seeks to make it hard for citizens to arrive at a shared understanding of events and ultimately to amplify distrust in governments and institutions.
For Beijing, in contrast, the CCP seeks to create positive perceptions of China and to legitimate its form of government.23 In particular, the CCP seeks to advance the appeal of Chinese culture, values, and traditions. For example, through commentators hired by state authorities, unofficially known as the “50 Cent Army” because of early allegations that employees would be paid 0.50 yuan per online post, the CCP has sought to craft, disseminate, and amplify pro-Beijing narratives online to shape perceptions around its policies.24 A preference for promulgating a stable narrative that enables Beijing to build economic ties, export its telecommunications infrastructure, and build long-term influence runs as a common thread across these activities—as reflected in oft-repeated slogans such as “win-win cooperation” and “community of shared future for mankind.”25 Where China has shown a willingness to push negative narratives and undermine trust in democratic institutions, as in the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong, it has relied on creating spam accounts or leveraging extant accounts on unrelated topics to dilute and weaken the overall information space.26
Flooding versus suppression27
Finally, China’s approach to shaping the information environment is different than Russia’s, in that China also often seeks to censor or deny access to information while Russia primarily seeks to flood social media with coordinated, inauthentic tactics. China is able to use its economic leverage and market potential to muzzle even American companies and suppress online information that is unfavorable to CCP interests. Apple Inc., for example, buckled under pressure from the Chinese government and removed from its online store the app “HKmap.live,” which helped Hong Kong protesters in 2019 track police movements after a Chinese state-owned newspaper criticized the US technology giant for allowing the software on its platform.28 During the same period, it also removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from iPhones in Hong Kong and Macau.29 Apple’s acquiescence is only one example of broader trendlines of American corporations modifying their online presence to appease Beijing and the market that it represents.
Beyond its coercion of corporate America, Beijing has exploited the lack of reciprocity between the information ecosystems of China and democracies to advance its agenda. While American social media platforms—including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and WhatsApp—are increasingly difficult to access within China’s borders, especially since the CCP’s crackdown on virtual private networks in the lead-up to its 2017 Party Congress,30 China’s own tech champions promulgate their alternative platforms beyond Chinese borders.31 These platforms provide Beijing with the capacity for widespread censorship, often without users’ awareness. Preliminary analysis, for example, suggests that content on TikTok—one of the world’s fastest-growing social media platforms and the most downloaded app worldwide in the first quarter of 201932—may be subject to China’s censorship apparatus by way of its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance.33 And the censorship concerns around WeChat are already well-documented.34 During the protracted pro-democracy struggle in Hong Kong in 2019, the CCP’s censorship machinery hummed along at full throttle as Tencent suspended the accounts of WeChat users, even in the United States, who criticized Beijing.35
Meanwhile, Moscow diverges from Beijing in its capacity for censorship. Rather than suppressing information, Russia uses a tactic that some scholars have referred to as “flooding,” or the dissemination of high volumes of repetitive information across a large number of channels.36 In other words, Russian-backed actors seek to seed “public debate with nonsense, disinformation, distractions, vexatious opinions, and counter-arguments.”37 In this way the Kremlin does not seek to dominate the informational space but dilute it.38 For example, when faced with a damaging event like the Skripal poisoning, the Russian government’s response (operating in part through state-controlled media) was to flood the informational space with potential explanations, however implausible.39
Synergies are here to stay
Despite these enduring differences, the two countries are increasingly finding common cause as their interests converge on a number of issues and in strategic regions. While there is little evidence to suggest that Moscow and Beijing explicitly coordinate their information operations, their synergistic efforts in the information domain amid the pandemic are not just narrowly opportunistic. Rather, they reflect years of diplomatic coordination as well as a deepening alignment of objectives.
In a relatively short period, Beijing and Moscow have increased their knowledge sharing and exchange of best practices on issues related to digital influence, including through the China-Russia Media Forum that the two countries launched in 2014.40 Executives from China’s People’s Daily and Russia’s Rossiiskaya Gazeta who attended the fifth iteration of the media forum in 2019 advocated for coordinating more closely to fend off “twisted and biased coverage” from Western outlets.41 At the third China-Russia Internet Media Forum in November 2019, Yang Xiaowei, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, hailed the deepening ties between Chinese and Russian media while his Russian counterpart, Alexey Volin, discussed the importance of advancing cooperation in new frontiers of communications and entertainment, including movies, television programming, and gaming.42
China also appears to be gleaning best practices from Moscow and has begun to adopt some of the Kremlin’s tactics, particularly in the social media domain. As one former political science lecturer at Tsinghua University observed, “China has been studying the propaganda strategies of Russia, including how the latter manipulates media, mobilizes its youth, and trains its hackers.”43 In a July 2019 Study Times article, Hua Chunying, the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, hinted at the contours of a more aggressive global social media strategy, noting that Beijing had “walked closer to the center of the world stage than ever before” but still does not “grasp the microphone completely.”44 During a November 2019 United Front Work Department conference on conducting internet influence activities, the department’s head noted that the United Front would leverage social media influencers to “play an active role in guiding public opinion.”45
Converging objectives support future collaboration
While COVID-19 has imbued the growing overlap between Chinese and Russian digital influence campaigns with new vitality, their efforts are ultimately backstopped by a set of complementary geopolitical objectives that will endure beyond the pandemic. Foremost among these is a shared desire to undermine the United States. Chinese and Russian diplomats have been open, in official statements, about their efforts to pool their countries’ know-how, technology, and media resources to diminish the United States’ global influence. Meanwhile, they view US efforts to support democracy as a thinly veiled attempt to expand US influence and undermine their regimes.46 In August of 2019, for example, as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong gained momentum, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated Beijing’s allegations that the United States had incited the protests and expressed the need for China and Russia to step up efforts to jointly investigate Washington’s use of technology to destabilize their two countries.47
Just as China and Russia seek to undermine US influence, they also leverage online platforms to build international support for their positions. Beijing and Moscow have endeavored to shape the information environment, discredit critics, and cultivate influence through proxies, including on American platforms. These efforts are intended to build support for Chinese and Russian views in countries across the globe. China, far more so than Russia, seeks to build positive and proactive narratives. The primary aim of China’s informational strategy is to “tell a good Chinese story, express China’s voice, and get overseas audience recognition and support for Xi Jinping thought.”48 Through propaganda and broader efforts to shape the global information environment, Beijing has peddled narratives about its inevitable ascent to global leadership, touting its advancement of “high-quality” infrastructure development under the banner of Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road strategy while casting its system of authoritarian rule as capable of managing crises more nimbly than democratic systems.49
Additionally, China and Russia see liberal democracy as a threat to their domestic standing and survival and therefore use digital influence campaigns to undermine liberal democratic norms and institutions. According to this view, US efforts to support democracy are thinly veiled attempts to expand US influence and undermine their regimes. They believe, for example, that the United States uses democracy to obscure Washington’s efforts to foment “color revolutions” intended to unseat regimes that it views as unfriendly, including in Moscow and Beijing. In August 2019, as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong began to gain significant momentum, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s primary spokesperson Maria Zakharova reiterated Chinese allegations that the United States had incited the protests and expressed Russia’s support for China in investigating the United States’ use of technology to destabilize their two countries.50
Finally, Chinese and Russian digital influence campaigns are driven by a shared desire to weaken cohesion among democracies and to peel US allies and partners away from Washington to dilute opposition to their interests. Beijing has long understood that its rising economic influence would lead other countries to balance against it—an understanding encapsulated in the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time.”51 The CCP, therefore, uses information operations to portray China’s rise as peaceful—particularly as it cast itself as a highly nimble and capable partner in contrast to the United States’ retrenchment from global leadership in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic—and to keep countries from banding with the United States in opposition to it.
In Europe, for example, China has adopted a divide-and-conquer approach, calculating that a fractured Europe enhances Beijing’s leverage on trade and prevents Europe from taking united actions in opposition to China’s self-proclaimed core interests, such as criticizing the human rights crackdown in Xinjiang, expressing support for democratic Taiwan, and pushing back against Beijing’s adventurism and expansionist maritime claims in the South China Sea. Russia similarly seeks to sow division within the EU to create conditions conducive to Moscow, as it sees a fractured EU as less capable of pushing back on Moscow.52
New frontiers of cooperation
The United States and Europe are already grappling with the implications of Russian disinformation tactics. Similarly, political observers have grown more attuned to China’s digital influence efforts. But far less is known about the potential implications for liberal democracy if Russia and China grow increasingly aligned and coordinated in their digital influence efforts. The impact of such Russia-China alignment is likely to be far greater than the sum of their parts, putting democracy at risk globally.
To more effectively confront these efforts, policymakers must stay one step ahead. Thinking through how these actors could coordinate their digital influence efforts in the future can suggest opportunities today. Looking forward, there are primary ways in which collaboration between Beijing and Moscow in the information space may evolve in mutually reinforcing ways.
1.Deepening diplomatic coordination
China and Russia have increased their coordination on issues related to digital influence, ranging from cybersecurity and cyberspace to broadcast and online media, as their shared threat perception and mutual interests have given rise to several agreements and initiatives. In the cybersecurity realm, for example, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin inked an agreement in 2015 to work together to ensure international information security. Since the agreement was signed, China and Russia have conducted numerous exchanges designed to share technologies, information, and processes to control the internet.
Already, executives from People’s Daily and Rossiiskaya Gazeta who attended the media forum in 2019 have advocated for coordinating more closely to fend off “twisted and biased coverage” from western outlets.53 Beijing, all the while, showcases the success of its domestic model of information control and management by conducting large-scale training of foreign officials on managing public opinion and new media.54 By developing the rails and pipelines of an alternative information architecture, China and Russia are positioned to jointly promulgate a vision of a digital order shaped by the preferences of authoritarian states.
In international forums such as the United Nations, where Beijing has steadily expanded its clout, it has joined hands with Russia to try to institutionalize illiberal norms around the use of technology, including surveillance and censorship. In November 2019, China and Russia jointly pushed a UN cybercrime resolution entitled “Countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes” that would essentially give authoritarian governments broad-based authority to repress political dissent online.55
More broadly, as Beijing and Moscow compete with democracies over the future of the global information space, they will seek to create a sense of moral equivalency to the United States’ democracy promotion activities dating back to the height of the Cold War. Chinese and Russian diplomats are likely to continue to try to flip the script and cast blame on the United States for meddling in their internal affairs while contending that Beijing and Moscow are seeking to “democratize” the information space by popularizing non-Western news media, social media, and other online platforms. Both countries, for example, have blamed the United States for interfering in their internal affairs amid flareups of political movements, most notably in Hong Kong in 2019. Absent clear and shared guidelines advanced by democracies to underscore how the Chinese and Russian activities are fundamentally different, these illiberal actors are increasingly well-positioned to blur these moral boundaries—including in international institutions.
Ultimately, deepening Russia-China relations in other areas—including in the economic and defense realms—is likely to spill over and accelerate and amplify their cooperation on digital influence. These habits of cooperation are poised to become more problematic for democracies as both China and Russia seek to improve their capacity to advance their narratives globally—an objective that the CCP characterizes as “discourse power.”56 Moreover, as they coordinate their narratives they legitimate each other’s actions making them more persuasive with swing states, which will be crucial in determining the future trajectory of democracy.
2.Dividing and conquering
While Russian efforts remain focused on weakening and dividing democratic societies in Europe and the United States, China is spreading the tentacles of its online influence campaigns in strategically positioned developing countries across Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Chinese media companies such as StarTimes have, for example, expanded their equities in the digital television broadcasting sector, particularly targeting emerging markets using enticing, low-cost package offerings to audiences in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria—or through forming joint ventures with local or national television stations.57 Meanwhile, Moscow remains well-positioned and willing to do Beijing’s bidding when it comes to promoting Chinese media products, telecommunications infrastructure, and other technology in countries across Europe and other Western countries, particularly if this bestows the two countries with additional levers by which to curtail the spread of the free information apparatus that democracies seek to promote.58
In addition to this regional division of labor, there is a tactical battle rhythm that is emerging between China and Russia. For example, while Russia primarily propagates divisive content on pre-existing and well-established platforms—such as Western social media sites and Moscow-based broadcast media—China is ever more focused on developing entirely new platforms by which to disseminate information. In doing so, China and Russia are together exerting both internal and external pressure on open societies, by compromising the integrity of existing platforms while seeking to undercut the perceived Western monopoly on the global information ecosystem.
3.Leveraging each other’s platforms to broaden their reach
The proliferation and growing appeal of Chinese-designed and -marketed social media apps that run parallel to Western platforms have the potential to create entirely alternative information ecosystems that China and Russia can jointly leverage to promote their messages. Indeed, as Chinese apps proliferate globally, the CCP’s information operations can move more nimbly and covertly in democratic societies. Chinese state actors have, for example, used WeChat to mobilize the Chinese diaspora to take to polling stations during Canada’s 2019 federal election, which potentially foreshadows how the CCP might leverage WeChat for more direct influence in future democratic elections.59 If WeChat and other Chinese-designed apps prove an effective vehicle for shaping the preferences of the Chinese diaspora, Russia might turn to these platforms as well to amplify polarizing and destabilizing messages in the United States or other Western societies.
On the broadcast media front, Global Times—one of China’s major media outlets created under the auspices of the People’s Daily—announced a major partnership in 2017 with Russia’s Sputnik news agency, bumping Sputnik’s total number of contracts with Chinese media organizations including Xinhua and China Radio International up to eight.60 Beijing-friendly content has, in the ensuing years, proliferated in Russian outlets while Chinese news services have also taken up the mantle of promoting Russia’s informational agenda. These content-sharing arrangements offer a relatively low-cost means by which Beijing and Moscow can multiply the reach of their national outlets and will thus continue to be a useful tool for both countries.
Concerns around data harvesting associated with Chinese apps have grown acute, particularly among political activists critical of Beijing’s policies and in countries suspicious of China’s geopolitical ambitions. As both Beijing and Moscow look to silence dissidents in online spaces, more concrete collaboration between the CCP and Russian actors could become more of an attractive option for both countries. While evidence of collaboration largely remains circumstantial at present, Beijing and Moscow are certainly positioned to leverage one another’s technology to try to silence dissent.
In 2019, for example, CCP organs harvested the personal information of protestors in Hong Kong from their social media profiles and other databases and publicly released their personal data on social media and websites including “HK Leaks,” which was notably hosted on a Russian domain.61 Societies that rely on Chinese apps, such as social media or e-payment platforms run by Tencent, to conduct day-to-day activities are uniquely vulnerable to coordinated coercion, as state actors could leverage data grafted from these platforms to shape behavior in ways that align with their interests.
5.Jointly harnessing technological advancements
As Beijing and Moscow maneuver to shape the global information environment both independently and jointly, their exchange of best practices and mutual learning around these tools will migrate to cutting-edge capabilities that are difficult to detect but yield maximal payoff in eroding democratic institutions globally. For example, a major area of focus for Chinese and Russian investments in next-generation digital interference capabilities will include controlling the platforms, software, and the way day-to-day activities are conducted online.
Existing Chinese- and Russian-designed apps have already generated risks to democratic societies, but as they gain traction, their virality will enable them to move more quickly than governments’ ability to confirm or deny their verity. Chinese apps that allow users to create low-quality deep fakes in mass quantities—such as Zao, Yanji, and a pending feature within TikTok62 dubbed “Face Swap”—have proliferated in 2019.63 And the photo-transforming FaceApp that went viral as the most-downloaded smartphone app in the United States in the summer of 2019 caused disarray after it was revealed that a relatively unknown Russian firm had developed the app.64 By taking advantage of opaque ownership structures, front companies, and flimsy assurances about data security practices, China and Russia are increasingly well-positioned to pilot “viral” apps that use artificial intelligence and natural language processing software to collect, analyze, and generate data that erode public faith and understanding of the idea of truth.65
Finally, technological change will also have the potential to enhance and enable the widespread use of tools like micro-targeting and deep fakes that Russia and China can use to more effectively manipulate the information environment. Although the two countries would be unlikely to directly coordinate their use of such tools, their ability to learn lessons and best practices from one another could accelerate their effective use of these methods.
Reclaiming the narrative
The contest to shape the global information environment is the most nebulous—and among the most important—arenas of the strategic competition between the United States and the world’s leading authoritarian states. But while Beijing and Moscow have directed considerable resources and strategic focus toward mobilizing their online information operations in democratic societies, the United States has largely been caught on the backfoot. It and its democratic allies and partners should adopt a holistic approach to countering digital influence campaigns by China and Russia, particularly in light of the growing synergies between these two powers. This approach must strike the right balance between minimizing opportunities for authoritarian interference and sustaining the open information ecosystems that remain critical to economic prosperity and democratic governance. It should also move beyond a tactical focus and instead, seek to address information ecosystems as a whole, starting with individual users, scaling up to social media platforms, and extending to relevant international legal and normative frameworks.
Beyond bolstering resilience, expanding international coordination, and constructing and sustaining healthy information ecosystems, the United States and its democratic allies and partners should develop a robust set of options to impose costs on China and Russia, to deter the most egregious forms of digital influence campaigns. These actions would be most likely to deter Russian and Chinese actions if articulated clearly, and in advance, and could include demonstrating an ability to hold at risk sensitive personal data of Chinese or Russian senior leadership in response to state-sponsored digital influence campaigns or injecting fact-based information into the online ecosystem of China or Russia that exposes the corruption of their elites and larger flaws of their authoritarian systems.
Ultimately, the United States must reassert global leadership. Russia and China seek to exploit perceptions that America is disinterested or in retreat. They seek to amplify and exploit these perceived vacuums to advance their own interests. Put differently, when the United States is present and committed to engagement with its partners across the globe, Russian and Chinese narratives have less fertile ground in which to take root. An America that galvanizes global coalitions of like-minded nations to rise to common challenges will render Beijing and Moscow’s digital influence operations against its allies and partners less effective. In many ways, the best defense is a good offense.66
*This article draws on a recent CNAS report entitled “Dangerous Synergies: Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence Operations.”
1. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “Converging Chinese and Russian Disinformation Compounds Threat to Democracy,” National Endowment for Democracy, May 26, 2020, https://www.power3point0.org/2020/05/26/converging-chinese-and-russian-disinformation-compounds-threat-to-democracy/.
2. “Feast in time of plague? Trump official says China coronavirus is good for US economy,” RT, January 31, 2020, https://www.rt.com/business/479668-coronavirus-could-boost-us-jobs/; “Pompeo adds insult to injury by dangling coronavirus ‘help’ in front of sanctions-stricken Iran,” RT, February 28, 2020, https://www.rt.com/news/481947-iran-pompeo-coronavirus-insult-sanctions/.
3. Tony Romm, “Millions of tweets peddled conspiracy theories about coronavirus in other countries, and unpublished U.S. report says,” The Washington Post, February 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/02/29/twitter-coronavirus-misinformation-state-department/.
4. Lijian Zhao, “This article is very much important to each and every one of us. Please read and retweet it. COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US,” Twitter, March 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/zlj517/status/1238269193427906560.
Tony Romm, “Millions of tweets peddled conspiracy theories about coronavirus in other countries, and unpublished U.S. report says,” The Washington Post, February 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/02/29/twitter-coronavirus-misinformation-state-department/.
5. See for example, “Virus may have circulated in Italy before outbreak in China,” China Global TV Network (CGTN), March 22, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KELvvknOKSw&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axioschina&stream=china; Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Beijing’s Coronavirus propaganda blitz goes global,” Axios, March 11, 2020, https://www.axios.com/beijings-coronavirus-propaganda-blitz-goes-global-f2bc610c-e83f-4890-9ff8-f49521ad6a14.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axioschina&stream=china.
6. Hua Chunying, “Amid the Chinese anthem playing out in Rome, Italians chanted "Grazie, Cina!". In this community with a shared future, we share weal and woe together,” Twitter, March 15, 2020, https://twitter.com/SpokespersonCHN/status/1239041044580188162; Embaixada da China em Angola, “Estudantes angolanos no Instituto Confucius solidarizam-se com a China.#COVID19, Twitter, https://twitter.com/ChinaEmbAngola/status/1239501294911586304.
7. Francesco Bechis and Gabriele Carrer, “How China unleashed Twitter bots to spread COVID-19 propaganda in Italy,” Formiche, March 23, 2020, https://formiche.net/2020/03/china-unleashed-twitter-bots-covid19-propaganda-italy/.
8. “Data Intelligence Comunicazione Cinese in Italia,” Formiche by Alkemy SpA’s R&D Lab, March 23, 2020, https://formiche.net/files/2017/07/Social-Data-Intelligence-Comunicazione-cinese-ricerca-per-Formiche-1.pdf.
9. President of the Russian Federation, ‘The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’ (in Russian), February 5, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20110504070127/http://www.scrf.gov.ru/documents/33.html.
10. Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, et al., “Countering Russian Social Media Influence,” RAND, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2740.html.
11. Mark Galeotti, “Controlling Chaos: How Russia Manages its Political War in Europe,” September 1, 2017, European Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/controlling_chaos_how_russia_manages_its_political_war_in_europe
12. Liu Yunshan, “回顾与展望,” QSTheory, June 22, 2009, http://www.qstheory.cn/zxdk/2009/200901/200906/t20090609_1625.htm
13. Anne-Marie Brady, “Authoritarianism Goes Global (II): China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine,” Journal of Democracy, 26 no. 4 (October 2015), 51–59.
14. “把网上舆论工作作为宣传思想工作的重中之重,” CPCNews, October 31, 2013, http://theory.people.com.cn/n/2013/1031/c40537-23387807.html.
16. Peter Harrell, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Edoardo Saravalle, “China’s Use of Coercive Economic Measures,” Center for a New American Security, June 11, 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/China_Use_FINAL-1.pdf?mtime=20180604161240.
17. Ben Blanchard and Andrew Heavens, “U.S. ‘Smears’ of China Affecting Global Stability, Top Beijing Diplomat Says,” The New York Times, December 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/12/23/business/23reuters-china-usa.html.
18. “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” (Hoover Institution, 2018), https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/chineseinfluence_americaninterests_fullreport_web.pdf; Michael J. Mazzar, Abigail Casey, Alyssa Demus, Scott W. Harold, Luke J. Matthews, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, James Sladden, “Hostile Social Manipulation Present Realities and Emerging Trends,” (RAND, 2019), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2713.html.
19. Ministry of National Defense, China’s Military Strategy, May 26, 2015, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Press/2015-05/26/content_4586805.htm.
21. Insikt Group, “Beyond Hybrid War: How China Exploits Social Media to Sway American Opinion,” Recorded Future, March 6, 2019, https://www.recordedfuture.com/china-social-media-operations/.
22. Clarissa Ward, Katie Polglase, Sebastian Shukla, Gianluca Mezzofiore, and Tim Lister, “Russian election meddling is back – via Ghana and Nigeria – and in your feeds,” CNN, March 13, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/12/world/russia-ghana-troll-farms-2020-ward/index.html.
23. Insikt Group, “Beyond Hybrid War: How China Exploits Social Media to Sway American Opinion,” Recorded Future, March 6, 2019, https://www.recordedfuture.com/china-social-media-operations/.
24. Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts, “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction not Engaged Argument,” American Political Science Review, 111 (2017), http://gking.harvard.edu/files/gking/files/50c.pdf?m=1463587807&version=meter+at+0&module=meterLinks&pgtype=article&contentId=&mediaId=&referrer=&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click
25. Cao Desheng, “Xi’s Discourses on Mankind’s Shared Future Published,” China Daily, October 15, 2018, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201810/15/WS5bc38adca310eff303282392.html.
26. Tom Uren, Elise Thomas, and Dr. Jacob Wallis, “Tweeting through the Great Firewall,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, September 3, 2019, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/tweeting-through-great-firewall.
27. The authors are indebted to commentary by Laura Rosenberger at a November 20, 2019 workshop at the Center for a New American Security for some of the insights contained in this sub-section.
28. Jack Nicas, “Apple Removes App That Helps Hong Kong Protesters Track the Police,” The New York Times, October 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/technology/apple-hong-kong-app.html.
29. Mark Gurman, “Apple Pulls Taiwanese Flag Emoji From iPhones in Hong Kong,” Bloomberg, October 8, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-08/apple-pulls-taiwanese-flag-emoji-from-iphones-in-hong-kong.
30. Harry Krejsa, “Under Pressure: The Growing Reach of Chinese Influence Campaigns in Democratic Societies,” Center for a New American Security, April 2018, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/under-pressure.
31. Paige Leskin, “Here are all the major US tech companies blocked behind China’s ‘Great Firewall,’” Business Insider, October 10, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/major-us-tech-companies-blocked-from-operating-in-china-2019-5#google-2.
32. “Top Apps Worldwide for Q1 2019 by Downloads,” Sensor Tower Blog, May 15, 2019, https://sensortower.com/blog/top-apps-worldwide-q1-2019-downloads.
33. Geoffrey Gertz, “Is TikTok a threat to national security?” The Washington Post, November 11, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/11/is-tiktok-threat-national-security/.
34. Tamara Khandaker, “The WeChat factor,” Vice, February 1, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/zmana5/experts-say-we-should-watch-out-for-wechats-influence-in-canadas-election.
35. Isobel Asher Hamilton, “WeChat users in the US say the app is censoring their messages about Hong Kong,” Business Insider, November 26, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/us-wechat-users-censored-messages-hong-kong-china-2019-11.
37. Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier, “Democracy’s Dilemma,” Boston Review, May 15, 2019, https://bostonreview.net/forum-henry-farrell-bruce-schneier-democracys-dilemma.
38. Seva Gunitsky, “The Great Online Convergence: Digital Authoritarianism Comes to Democracies,” War On The Rocks, February 19, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/02/the-great-online-convergence-digital-authoritarianism-comes-to-democracies/.
40. “5th Russia-China Media Forum to Be Held at EEF 2019,” Roscongress, August 13, 2019, https://roscongress.org/en/news/5th-russiachina-media-forum-to-be-held-at-eef-2019/.
41. “Sino-Russian media cooperation and exchange enters a new era,” Xinhua, September 3, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-09/03/c_1124957041.htm
42. Shi Jing, “China-Russia digital media cooperation forum boots up in Wuxi,” China Daily, November 15, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201911/15/WS5dce4766a310cf3e35577aa0_1.html.
43. Jane Li, “Russia is Beijing’s best ally in the disinformation war against Hong Kong,” Quartz, December 11, 2019, https://qz.com/1765092/russia-is-beijings-ally-in-media-war-against-hong-kong/.
44. Hua Chunying, “Hua Chunying zai xuexi shibao zhuanwen: zhanju daoyi zhi gaodian, tisheng guoji huayuquan,” Pengpai Xinwen, July 12, 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_3900567.
45. Raymond Zhong, “Awash in Disinformation Before Vote, Taiwan Points Finger at China,” The New York Times, January 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/06/technology/taiwan-election-china-disinformation.html.
46. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “How China and Russia Undermine Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, October 2, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-02/how-russia-and-china-undermine-democracy.
47. Thomas Grove, “Russia Gives China a Leg Up in Foreign Broadcasting,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-gives-china-a-leg-up-in-foreign-broadcasting-11579003202.
48. Echo Huang, “Why China isn’t as skillful at disinformation as Russia,” Quartz, September 19, 2019, https://qz.com/1699144/why-chinas-social-media-propaganda-isnt-as-good-as-russias/.
49. Ben Blanchard and Andrew Heavens, “U.S. ‘Smears’ of China Affecting Global Stability, Top Beijing Diplomat Says,” The New York Times, December 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/12/23/business/23reuters-china-usa.html; Javier C. Hernández, “China Spins Coronavirus Crisis, Hailing Itself as a Global Leader,” The New York Times, February 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/world/asia/china-coronavirus-response-propaganda.html.
50. Mu Xuequan, “Moscow calls for joint cooperation with Beijing against U.S. interference,” Xinhua, August 9, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/09/c_138297092.htm.
51. Miles Maochun Yu, “China’s Strategic Ambiguity,” Hoover Institution, June 25, 2018, https://www.hoover.org/research/chinas-strategic-ambiguity.
52. Agnieszka Legucka, “Russia’s Long-Term Campaign of Disinformation in Europe,” Carnegie Europe, March 19, 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/81322.
53. “Sino-Russian media cooperation and exchange enters a new era,” Xinhua, September 3, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-09/03/c_1124957041.htm
54. He Huifeng, “In a remote corner of China, Beijing is trying to export its model by training foreign officials the Chinese way,” South China Morning Post, July 14, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2155203/remote-corner-china-beijing-trying-export-its-model-training.
55. Justin Sherman and Mark Raymond, “The U.N. passed a Russia-backed cybercrime resolution. That’s not good news for Internet freedom,” The Washington Post, December 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/04/un-passed-russia-backed-cybercrime-resolution-thats-not-good-news-internet-freedom/.
56. Samuel Bendett and Elsa B. Kania, “A new Sino-Russian high-tech partnership,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, October 2019, https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2019-10/A%20new%20Sino-Russian%20high-tech%20partnership_0.pdf?xAs9Tv5F.GwoKPiV9QpQ4H8uCOet6Lvh.
57. Sarah Cook, “The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence since 2017,” Freedom House, January 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/beijings-global-megaphone#footnote2_w7knna3.
58. “The Alliance for Securing Democracy Launches Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard,” German Marshall Fund, September 4, 2019, http://www.gmfus.org/press-releases/alliance-securing-democracy-launches-hamilton-20-dashboard.
59. Tamara Khandaker, “The WeChat factor,” Vice, February 1, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/zmana5/experts-say-we-should-watch-out-for-wechats-influence-in-canadas-election.
60. “Sputnik Signs Cooperation Agreements With China’s Xinhua, Guangdong Agencies,” Sputnik, April 7, 2017, https://sputniknews.com/agency_news/201707041055212186-sputnik-agreement-xinhua-cooperation/.
61. Jane Li, “Russia is Beijing’s best ally in the disinformation war against Hong Kong,” Quartz, December 11, 2019, https://qz.com/1765092/russia-is-beijings-ally-in-media-war-against-hong-kong/; and DFRLab, “Telegram channels used to doxx and report Hong Kong protesters to Chinese authorities,” Medium,September 25, 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/telegram-channels-used-to-doxx-and-report-hong-kong-protesters-to-chinese-authorities-91bed151f345.
62. Peter Suciu, “TikTok’s Deepfakes Just the Latest Security Issue for the Video Sharing App,” Forbes, January 7, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2020/01/07/tiktoks-deepfakes-just-the-latest-security-issue-for-the-video-sharing-app/#570476e870a2.
63. This insight reflects commentary made by Laura Rosenberger at a November 20, 2019 workshop at the Center for a New American Security; see, for example, Colum Murphy and Zheping Huang, “China’s Red-Hot Face-Swapping App Provokes Privacy Concerns,” Bloomberg, September 1, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-02/china-s-red-hot-face-swapping-app-provokes-privacy-concern .
64. Hannah Denham and Drew Harwell, “Panic over Russian company’s FaceApp is a sign of new distrust of the Internet,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/07/18/heres-what-we-know-about-russian-company-behind-faceapp/.
65. Jill Dougherty and Molly Jay, “Russia Tries to Get Smart About Artificial Intelligence” Spring 2018, https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/living-with-artificial-intelligence/russia-tries-to-get-smart-about-artificial-intelligence/.
66. For a related argument see Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “Coronavirus Could Reshape the Global Order,” Foreign Affairs, March 18, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-03-18/coronavirus-could-reshape-global-order.