Putin’s and Xi’s evolving disinformation playbooks pose new threats

Jessica Brandt is Policy Director of the AI ​​and Emerging Technology Initiative and a Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.

the TechCrunch Global Affairs project explores the increasingly intertwined relationship between the technology sector and world politics.

As the information domain becomes an increasingly active and momentous area of ​​government competition, two countries have gone all-in. Both China and Russia have developed elaborate information strategies to advance their geopolitical interests, and their playbooks continue to evolve. No longer relying primarily on proxy troll farms to generate large amounts of polarizing content, the Kremlin is turning to military intelligence agencies to conduct more targeted intelligence operations aimed at bypassing platform detection mechanisms. And, motivated by concerns that it could be blamed for a pandemic that has killed more than five million people worldwide, Beijing is committed to using “Wolf warrior”Diplomats to spread conspiracy theories online. To uphold its vision of a free and open Internet, Washington needs one strategy to push back.

Moscow’s information manipulation playbook is evolving

Russia, a power in decline due to many measures, is trying to compensate for its relative weakness by asymmetrical means by temporarily disrupting the institutions, alliances and domestic politics of its neighbors and geopolitical competitors. The Kremlin has little to lose and much to gain from the public’s perception of its activities not particularly sensitive to attributions or concerned about impact. To keep the transatlantic community distracted, divided, and unable to pursue a confident, coordinated foreign policy that could harm its interests, the Kremlin uses disinformation to stir up chaos and promote disorder.

To achieve this, Moscow uses at least two techniques that have allowed its playbook to mature since its “lively and systematic“Campaign to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. First, it regularly co-opts domestic voices and institutions within target societies to present information operations as authentic advocacy, often through hide Trolls within a target group, Rental the social media accounts of local citizens or the recruiting of real activists to Stir up protests. This is done in part to bypass increasingly sophisticated platform detection mechanisms and in part to avoid the Politicization of debates about content moderation within the United States.

Second, the Kremlin disinformers recognize that they do not need to continue a large-scale operation to create the impression they or others have, and that the impression alone is enough to cast doubts about the legitimacy of election results and exacerbate party disputes. Moscow can do that Leverage widespread concern about the potential for tampering, particularly in the context of elections, in order to achieve its goals by asserting that manipulation has taken place – even without a successful operation.

Beijing takes a page from Moscow’s playbook – and writes some of its own pieces

China, meanwhile, is one rising power Little to gain and much to lose from public awareness of its meddling activities. In contrast to Russia, it prefers a stable international order, which, however, is more conducive to its interests than the current US-led framework. Hence, its information activities are primarily aimed at promoting China’s image as a responsible global superpower and stifling prestigious criticism, while at the same time undermining the appeal of democracy by branding the United States and its partners as ineffective and hypocritical.

For Beijing, the pursuit of these interests meant a three-pronged approach strategy piggybacking on the propaganda networks of other strong men who give the appearance of popular support and start talking about their rights list. China lacks its own influencer network regularly relies on the alternative constellation thinker, many of them western, which are an integral part of Russian propaganda. Highlighting the difficulty of generating support for pro-Chinese positions on a platform that Beijing banned at home, China’s wolf warrior diplomats have engage regularly with wrong personas on Twitter. And in order to reduce criticism of its human rights record, it tries to use discussions about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang with the help of hashtag Campaigns and Slick Videos.

Autocrats align – but only sometimes

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

Both use “whataboutism” to portray the United States as hypocritical, especially about race. Both of them use clickbait content to generate huge followers on Twitter, realizing that an audience is a strategic asset. Both regularly spread multiple, often contradicting, conspiracy theories to challenge official accounts of political events, evade guilt for their activities, and create the impression that there is no such thing as objective reality. Both operate extensive propaganda machines that spread their preferred narratives.

They also use a lot of the same narratives. Both countries have worked to build trust in the Security protocol certain Western COVID-19 vaccines and portray the United States and its allies as ineffective. However, Russia is primarily focused on advancing divisive content that deepens polarization and detracts from trust in institutions and elites, while at the same time anti-Russian bias is pushed back in established media. For its part, China is particularly interested in Emphasis that Services of his model of government, while portraying criticism of his violations as hypocritical. The state media of the Kremlin almost never reports on Russian domestic politics. Moscow’s goal is to drive audiences away from the political west and not to pull them to Russia. The opposite is true for China.

Much has happened did on the state of cooperation between Russia and China in various areas of their respective competitions with the United States. There is evidence that there is very little formal coordination of their informational activities beyond what is largely symbolic agreement to spread the content of the other. This is not entirely surprising. Beijing does not need to formally work with Moscow to reinforce Kremlin-sponsored narratives or emulate other successful elements of the Kremlin’s information strategy.

What’s coming

Both Russian and Chinese information strategies are evolving. Russia’s disinformation activities are becoming more targeted and harder to spot, while China is taking a more confident and less subtle approach than before. For Russia, these changes seem to have been driven by a growing awareness of its activities since 2016, which at the same time spurred the implementation of new platform guidelines and detection mechanisms and ushered in an era of partisan debates about the legitimacy of elections that reverberate today. For China, changes to its information strategy appear to be primarily motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis of unique importance to its geopolitical position that will continue to open up opportunities for Beijing to test new approaches.

Given these resulting changes in the way Russia and China approach the information field, the United States needs its own playbook. A robust one strategy would involve using truthful information to show the failure of repressive rule, Provision American cyber skills to prevent or cost those who run destabilizing disinformation campaigns and implement laws that would make platform transparency the norm, especially among trusted researchers. Finally, because the United States is good for democratic societies and challenges its authoritarian competitors, it should be more vigorous in defending freedom of information around the world.

In the resulting competition between democratic and authoritarian societies, autocrats have taken the initiative. This set of measures provides a starting point for bold and responsible action to ensure that the United States regains them. To be successful, the US and its democratic partners must act quickly.

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