This is the full launch of our report, “Deafening Whispers”. Initial findings were published in an abridged version in late 2020. The final report lays out the framework to analyze China’s information operations. In light of the recent boycott against H&M resulting in shutdowns of its stores across China, and growing awareness of the information operations China is conducting globally, our report and the investigations we have conducted are of particular relevance.
A Framework to Analyze China’s Information Operations — Developed by Doublethink Lab
China’s boycott campaign against Swedish retailer H&M last month has put the spotlight on Chinese information operations, and how it can easily shut down the operations of even one of the largest fashion retailers in the world. While the operations against H&M were shocking in terms of scale and success, the influence tactics used are not new.
In our latest report, “Deafening Whispers”, we introduce a framework our chairperson Dr. Puma Shen developed to analyze these information operations and the modes of operations used to spread Chinese propaganda.
Methods to study information operations need to evolve with their increasing sophistication, and at the end of this article, we propose a “3I” model to appraise information operations, as an alternative to the covert, coercive and corrupting means used to study China’s influence operations.
Key Actors Behind China’s Information Operations
Our framework looks at two main components: the actors behind these operations and their modes of operation.
While Chinese information operations have been traditionally thought of as being spearheaded by the government, they have evolved to involve various adversaries with different priorities and capacities.
We categorized the adversaries into four quadrants, depending on their political or economic agendas, and whether they are capital owners or suitors:
- Political, capital owner (top left-hand quadrant): This group comprises state agencies and state-owned media traditionally perceived as the mastermind of information operations. They are aligned to the national polity and are capital owners.
- Political, capital suitor (bottom left-hand quadrant): Other than national actors, local state actors such as the local CPPCC committees at the province level and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) also function as the political actors of information operations. They include social media platforms controlled by the Chinese government, “patriotic accounts”, and paid trolls.
- Economic, capital owner (top right-hand quadrant): A third group are mainly actors with business interests such as commercial media, as well as marketing and public relations companies (and YouTubers), which are paid to help promote Chinese propaganda. They also involve local gangs willing to take the money to do the bidding of these information operations.
- Economic, capital suitor (bottom right-hand quadrant): These are groups such as Facebook fan pages or commercial content farms which repost disinformation or conspiracy theories for the purposes of earning a quick buck.
H&M case study: We were able to use this framework to assess the level at which the H&M information operations were conducted. We utilized our digital tools to identify a Weibo account called “Yiping Hai’an” as being the originator of a post calling for “good riddance” to H&M, which was then picked up by the CYL and amplified via other state agencies and state-owned media, eventually escalating into a boycott of H&M.
The Four Modes of Operations of China’s Information Operations
Other than identifying the adversaries behind the information operations, our report also mapped out four modes of operation adopted by these adversaries to disseminate propaganda or disinformation:
- Propaganda Mode: Under this mode of operation, the central government works behind the scenes (as the controller of the information operations) with agents to persuade traditional media channels to report on alternative news propaganda.
- Pink Mode: This mode operates in a more local and less-capital intensive manner, and comprises mainly the Little Pinks or “patriotic accounts” which tend to spread low-end disinformation instead of propaganda and are less organized than the Propaganda Mode.
- Content Farm Mode: This mode is made up of large influencers with a profit-motive, who use their social media accounts to spread information generated by content farms. The instigators have also learned to connect propaganda with day-to-day issues to appeal to individuals.
- Collaboration Mode: In this model, there are no specific instigators or agents, rather actors work together to manufacture and distribute disinformation in a hybrid “funded by China, made in Taiwan” manner.
You can read more about our framework and case studies in the report.
Future Research Directions
The Characteristics of Information Operations: Information Manipulation, Investment-Linked and Ideology-Driven (3I)
Previous disinformation studies have focused on identifying the origin of disinformation, and then delineating the path of disinformation diffusion, such as how COVID-19-related messages are first spread from Weibo, then further amplified by Chinese ambassadors, and eventually circulated by anonymous Facebook fan pages and political talk shows. However, it is not enough to simply outline the disinformation pathways of information operations, since this still misses out the “methods” of operation.
Thus, in addition to the above-mentioned modes of operation detailed in our report, which is adversary-oriented, we propose the idea of “3I” to further elaborate on the characteristics of information operation.
Information Manipulation: Understanding the Mechanisms Behind Information Distortion Becomes Key
With growing awareness of China’s information operations, the Chinese government no longer tries to conceal these operations. Instead, these operations are now conducted boldly and explicitly. The internal propaganda campaign the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducted on citizens has resulted in them being weaponized to become purveyors of Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns.
In our report, we observed Chinese information operations conducted in both the Propaganda and Pink modes, but increasingly, these modes overlap and should be analyzed as a whole, given that public opinion in China is often constructed through a cherry-picking process, where the government might also capitalize on disinformation incited by Little Pinks.
Investment-Linked: Tracking the Financial Flows Behind Information Operations
In addition, instead of taking the lead in these information operations, the Chinese government has also taken to investing in downstream actors such as public relations companies to execute these operations. Investments could also be made in state agencies or state-run firms, while not directly for the intention of disinformation propagation, could be used for this purpose subsequently when the need arises.
Tracking the financial flows of these investments, therefore, become imperative toward understanding the information operations.
Ideology-Driven: Exploiting Individuals’ Beliefs to Spread Propaganda
Given a more decentralized network of disinformation manufacturers, ideology also becomes a driving force behind information operations. Individual actors can therefore become willing peddlers of China’s propaganda, driven by their own ideologies which can take the form of patriotism, the Chinese identity or China’s democracy as a better form of governance, for example.
Our chairperson, Dr. Puma Shen, will elaborate more on the 3I framework in the coming year.
Conclusion: A Framework to Investigate Chinese Information Operations
China has stepped up its information operations under Xi Jinping in the last few years, and the menacing threat of China’s authoritarianism requires a clear framework to examine how the CCP conducts its information operations so that counterstrategies can be developed to prevent these influences from disrupting our societies and democratic resilience. The framework developed by Doublethink aims to provide researchers with the tool to do so.
About the report — Deafening Whispers
Doublethink Lab | Authors
- Lilly Min-Chen Lee, Global Research Program Manager
- Po-Yu Tseng, Social Engagement Team Researcher
- Shih-Shiuan Wilson Kao, Legal Researcher
- Min-Hsuan Wu, Chief Executive Officer
- Dr. Puma Shen, Assistant Professor at National Taipei University, Chairman of Doublethink Lab
Being on the front lines of Chinese information warfare, Taiwan is uniquely positioned to provide insight into China’s developing political strategies and objectives. We propose a model that brings together the different actors and modes of China’s information operations, using Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election as a case study. We find that although the whispers of individual agents of Chinese disinformation campaign may appear to have had little impact on incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen’s overwhelming victory, together the cacophony of whispers threatens to be deafening: sowing division in Taiwanese society, pushing groups into echo chambers, and attacking fundamental democratic values. We conclude this report by making policy recommendations based on the proposed model.
- During Taiwan’s 2020 general election there were countless disseminators of disinformation, residing in both China and Taiwan. In addition to politically-oriented disinformation manufacturers and distributors, there were a large number of actors driven by financial interests, cooperating with others in a decentralized pattern. A significant difference between Chinese and Russian information warfare is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) owns many information operation units and outsources its missions. In other words, the division of labor for the CCP is far from precise which leads to its scattered and incoherent attack patterns.
- Evidence shows that China launched both online and offline attacks during the 2020 Taiwan general election and COVID-19 pandemic. This paper categorizes China’s information operations into four modes: Propaganda Mode, Pink Mode (Chinese nationalism related), Content Farm Mode, and Collaboration Mode (local cooperators related), based on the attackers’ capabilities and motivations. The Content Farm Mode and the Collaboration Mode caused more significant harm than the other two.
- The attack intensity of information operations and the challenges to investigating them are related to two factors: China’s domestic political tensions and the diligence of local proxy actors. First, China’s international relations and political tensions have changed in the past two years. The CCP has powered through its propaganda to stir Chinese nationalism which raises the bar for investigators to differentiate patriotism and state-funded actors. Second, proxy actors have actively participated in China’s information operations. Even though some of the attacks are initiated by China, there are many foreign actors who amplify it. It is the proxy actors who hook local actors up with the CCP, therefore, the intensity of information operations depends on their efforts.
- Specific narratives have dominated the 2020 Taiwan general election campaign, such as “Democracy is a failure,” which supports the view that democracy in Taiwan has failed to give the people good governance, positive international relationships, and a strong economy, and that democracy leads to moral decadence. “Democracy is a failure” was a constant narrative that played out during the presidential election campaign up until the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Information operations provide an opportunity to observe an adversary’s aims and goals. According to our research, the purposes of China’s information operations are not limited to elections. China aims at propagandizing its governance model and values; that is “China’s model is better than Western democracy.” However, unlike the previous view that China’s cyber army is only “cheerleading”, China’s information operations are also negative and aggressive. They amplify discord, harshly criticize certain ideologies, and fabricate conspiracies.
- According to our study, there are several personality types that are prone to consume disinformation. When disinformation triggers negative emotions and is circulated frequently in “chat apps” or by “word of mouth” among people with certain political affiliation, it has more impact than disinformation being widely discussed in mainstream media.
- Based on this research, we propose seven possible regulatory actions that may help to minimize the effects of foreign information operations, including greater transparency, blocking the collaboration between proxy actors and local actors, and implementing reasonable measures on social media platforms. However, it is a pity that Taiwan failed to successfully pass legal legislations aimed at increasing such transparency during the last election period.