China waging a disinformation war against HK protesters
The New York Times :
When a projectile struck a Hong Kong woman in the eye this week as protesters clashed with the police, China responded quickly: Its state television network reported that the woman had been injured not by one of the police's beanbag rounds, but by a protester.
The network's website went further: It posted what it said was a photo of the woman counting out cash on a Hong Kong sidewalk - insinuating, as Chinese reports have claimed before, that the protesters are merely paid provocateurs.
The assertion was more than just spin or fake news. The Communist Party exerts overwhelming control over media content inside China's so-called Great Firewall, and it is now using it as a cudgel in an information war over the protests that have convulsed Hong Kong for months.
In recent days, China has more
aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos to undermine the protesters. Chinese officials have begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism. The result, both in mainland China and abroad, has been to create an alternate version of what, seen from Hong Kong, is clearly a popular demonstration movement. In China's version, a small, violent gang of protesters, unsupported by residents and provoked by foreign agents, is running rampant, calling for Hong Kong's independence and tearing China apart.
This narrative almost certainly reflects that of the country's leaders, including Xi Jinping, and it is fueling misunderstanding - and, increasingly, anger - among the Chinese public. That could, in turn, raise pressure on the government, increasing the risk of an overreaction or miscalculation based on limited or inaccurate information.
People posting on Weibo, a Chinese social media service similar to Twitter, are increasingly calling for Beijing to act. "Beating them to a pulp is not enough," one person said about protesters Tuesday, echoing an increasingly common sentiment on Weibo. "They must be beaten to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up."
Since China's censors have the ability to quickly remove offending comments, the abundance of them suggests that the government is willing to tolerate the warning they deliver, however ominous it sounds.
China has long curated the content that it allows its citizens to see and read. Its new campaign has echoes of tactics used by other countries, principally Russia, to inundate domestic and international audiences with bursts of information, propaganda and, in some cases, outright disinformation.
"Propagandists observe each other across borders, and they learn from each other," said Peter Pomerantsev, the author of "This is Not Propaganda," a new book that describes how authoritarian governments have weaponized social media that were once hailed as harbingers for democratic ideals.
The disinformation has clearly been aimed at undermining sympathy for the Hong Kong protesters' goals, which now include demands for greater democratic freedoms for the territory's 7 million residents.
Propaganda in the traditional sense, Pomerantsev said, would try to win over an audience, while disinformation is meant simply to sow confusion and fuel conspiracies.
"You have to smother everything with doubt, and conspiracy is very effective in creating that," Pomerantsev said in a telephone interview.
Though China's disinformation network has received less global attention than Russia's, the country's officials have, over the last decade, built a machinery of online controls that far exceed any other country's.
Many overseas websites are blocked in China. Censors embedded within its internet companies delete anything unacceptable. The police have arrested people who speak out of turn in chat groups, or who share sensitive content online.