Putin and Xi’s evolving disinformation playbooks pose new threats

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Jessica Brandt

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Jessica Brandt is policy director of the AI and Emerging Technology Initiative and a fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

As the information domain becomes an increasingly active and consequential realm of state competition, two countries have gone all in. Both China and Russia have developed sophisticated information strategies to advance their geopolitical interests, and their playbooks are evolving. No longer primarily relying on proxy troll farms to generate large quantities of polarizing content, the Kremlin has turned to military intelligence assets to carry out more targeted information operations designed to circumvent platform-detection mechanisms. And motivated by concern that it might be blamed for a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than five million people worldwide, Beijing has become considerably less risk-averse in its use of “wolf warrior” diplomats to push conspiracy theories online. To sustain its vision of a free and open internet, Washington must develop a strategy to push back.

Moscow’s information manipulation playbook is evolving

Russia, a declining power by many measures, seeks to compensate for its relative weakness through asymmetric means, by disrupting the institutions, alliances and domestic politics of its neighbors and geopolitical competitors in the near term. With little to lose and much to gain from public awareness of its activities, the Kremlin is not particularly sensitive to attribution or concerned about repercussions. And so, in order to keep the transatlantic community distracted, divided and unable to carry out a confident, coordinated foreign policy that could be detrimental to its interests, the Kremlin uses disinformation to stoke chaos and promote disorder.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs ProjectTo accomplish this, Moscow uses at least two techniques that represent a maturation of its playbook since its “sweeping and systematic” campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. First, it regularly co-opts domestic voices and institutions within target societies in order to cast information operations as authentic advocacy, often by hiding trolls within a target population, renting the social media accounts of local citizens or recruiting real activists to stoke protests. It does so partly to evade increasingly sophisticated platform-detection mechanisms and partly to exacerbate the politicization of content moderation debates within the United States.

Second, the Kremlin‘s disinformers recognize that they do not need to perpetuate an operation at scale in order to create the impression that they or others have, and that the impression alone is enough to sow doubt about the legitimacy of election results and exacerbate partisan discord. Moscow can thus leverage widespread concern about the potential for manipulation, particularly in an election context, to achieve its goals by claiming that manipulation has happened — even in the absence of a successful operation.

Beijing is taking a page from Moscow’s playbook — and writing some of its own plays

China, meanwhile, is a rising power with little to gain and much to lose from public awareness of its interference activities. Unlike Russia, it prefers a stable international order, but one that is more conducive to its interests than the current U.S.-led framework. As a result, its activities in the information domain are primarily geared toward promoting China’s image as a responsible global superpower and stifling criticism that would tarnish its prestige, while denting the appeal of democracy by casting the United States and its partners as ineffective and hypocritical.

For Beijing, pursuing these interests has entailed a three-pronged strategy of piggybacking on the propaganda networks of other strongmen, manufacturing the appearance of popular support and co-opting conversations on its rights record. Lacking an influencer network of its own, China regularly relies on the constellation of alternative thinkers, many of them Western, that are a fixture of Russian propaganda. Highlighting the difficulty of generating support for pro-China positions on a platform Beijing has banned at home, China’s wolf warrior diplomats regularly engage with false personas on Twitter. And in order to push back on criticisms of its rights record, it attempts to co-opt discussions on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang using hashtag campaigns and slick videos.

Autocrats align — but only sometimes

Despite important differences in their long-term goals, Moscow and Beijing share multiple immediate objectives: denting the global prestige of democracy, weakening multilateral institutions and undermining democratic alliances. As a result, the two countries deploy several of the same tactics.

Both use “whataboutism” to paint the United States as hypocritical, particularly on issues of race. Both use clickbait content to generate large followings on Twitter, recognizing that an audience is a strategic asset. Both regularly traffic in multiple, often conflicting, conspiracy theories to cast doubt on official accounts of political events, evade blame for their activities and create the impression that there is no such thing as objective reality. Both operate extensive propaganda apparatuses that spread their preferred narratives.

They also deploy many of the same narratives. Both countries have worked to diminish confidence in the safety record of certain Western COVID-19 vaccines and portray the United States and its allies as ineffective. That said, Russia is primarily focused on pushing divisive content that deepens polarization and diminishes trust in institutions and elites, all while pushing back on what it characterizes as anti-Russian bias in established media. China, for its part, is primarily interested in highlighting the benefits of its governance model, while painting critiques of its rights abuses as hypocritical. Kremlin state media almost never cover Russian domestic politics. Moscow’s goal is to drive audiences away from the political West, not pull them toward Russia. For China, the opposite is true.

Much has been made about the state of cooperation between Russia and China in various domains of their respective competitions with the United States. Evidence suggests there is very little formal coordination of their information activities beyond largely symbolic agreements to distribute one another’s content. That is not entirely a surprise. Beijing doesn’t need to formally cooperate with Moscow in order to amplify Kremlin-promoted narratives or to emulate other successful elements of the Kremlin’s information strategy.

What’s to come

Both Russian and Chinese information strategies are evolving. Russia’s disinformation activities are becoming more targeted and harder to detect, while China is taking a more assertive, less subtle approach than before. For Russia, these changes appear to be driven by growing awareness of its activities since 2016, which simultaneously prompted the implementation of new platform policies and detection mechanisms and ushered in an era of partisan debates over election legitimacy that reverberate today. For China, changes to its information strategy seem to be primarily motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis of unique salience to its geopolitical standing that will continue to create opportunities for Beijing to test new approaches.

Recognizing these consequential changes to the way Russia and China approach the information domain, the United States needs a playbook of its own. A robust strategy would include harnessing truthful information to highlight the failures of repressive rule, deploying American cyber capabilities to prevent or impose costs on those who would conduct destabilizing disinformation campaigns and implementing legislation that would make platform transparency, particularly with trusted researchers, the norm. Finally, because it is good for democratic societies and creates challenges for their authoritarian competitors, the United States should more forcefully defend freedom of information worldwide.

In the consequential contest between democratic and authoritarian societies, autocrats have seized the initiative. This collection of measures represents a starting point for bold and responsible action to ensure that the United States regains it. To succeed, the U.S. and its democratic partners must act quickly.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

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