China and Russia aren’t the same when it comes to information warfare
25 Sep 2019|

A range of states are willing to exploit social media to achieve their goals by shaping geopolitical narratives, warping the media and information environment to their advantage, and fooling people into believing something they shouldn’t. Last week Twitter released more data from some of these operations, which now span the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Russia and China, plus political parties active in Spain, Venezuela, Ecuador and Catalonia.

But states can have very different approaches and goals. And if we look at two of the biggest players in this arena—Russia and China—their operations have very different strategic goals and typically use quite different tactics.

China hasn’t tended to resort to the kind of direct, disruptive approach to influence international social media audiences that we’ve come to know from Russia. It has been effective in employing a holistic approach in which language and messaging are used in tandem with other elements of statecraft, including diplomatic, military and economic efforts. By consistently asserting that its claims in the South China Sea have historical legitimacy, for example, China has created a coherent narrative to back its militarisation of artificial islands and assertion of maritime control. It can use its economic might and trade relationships to coerce others and silence dissent. And this economic leverage can be both sharp and subtle. It has been used to pry political elites in the South Pacific away from Taiwan—Solomon Islands’ and Kiribati’s decisions last week to break ties with Taipei left the island nation more isolated.

One of the most interesting features of the recent China-linked effort that targeted the Hong Kong protests—as analysed in our report, Tweeting through the Great Firewall—was how different this influence operation was from China’s typical approach.

For those of us who study influence operations by state and non-state actors, there was something familiar about the playbook: cross-platform coordinated networks of fake and automated accounts amplifying messages designed to mobilise online audiences and drive offline effects. We’ve seen this before.

Within China, the Chinese Communist Party dissuades dissent by controlling access to the domestic internet, exercising a combination of official and crowd-sourced content moderation, and applying coercive surveillance technologies. On the international stage, however, China presents itself to the rest of the world as a good global citizen. Getting caught engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Western social media platforms does not serve that end.

Both China and Russia suppress dissent at home. China, though, has managed to develop technological mechanisms of social control of such sophistication that it has created an export market among other authoritarian regimes. Both China and Russia have an interest in disrupting the rules-based order. Both countries have traditions of political warfare that stem from the ideological underpinnings of their state and military structures. Both encourage nationalistic sentiment in their diaspora communities and seek to use it as a tool of influence.

But, externally, Russia has less to lose.

With little to offer the rest of the world, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been willing to resort to disruptive tactics designed to widen internal divisions in Western democracies, induce policy paralysis, fragment alliances and discredit international governance organisations. Russian influence operations on Western social media platforms are blatant and persistent. Russian disinformation flows in a kind of pyramid structure from official Russian government social media accounts through Kremlin-funded media organisations like RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik. At the base of the pyramid are networks of bots and fake social media accounts that distribute content among target audiences. Each layer of the pyramid displays consistent thematic and temporal alignment in the disinformation it spreads. At moments of political significance, Russia’s espionage apparatus will deploy sharper information warfare tactics—as the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, did when it hacked the Democratic National Committee e-mail server during the 2016 US presidential election campaign and encouraged WikiLeaks to release the e-mails it found three days before the Democratic convention.

At times, Russian and Chinese interests and tactics converge. China targets disruptive information operations that involve combinations of cyber intrusion, disinformation and social media manipulation at Taiwan. Our analysis of Twitter’s original data release found that the network of accounts involved in targeting the Hong Kong protests had been running information operations to influence diaspora communities for more than two years. Russia, too, leverages its economic power where it can, mostly in energy resources and weapons sales, to exert influence on its trading partners.

Influence operations can and do use social media, but focusing solely on that mode doesn’t encompass the range of tactics that countries like China and Russia deploy to assert their national power. Democracies have traditionally drawn a clear distinction between the states of war and peace, leaving them vulnerable to persistent forms of political warfare that exploit hybrid threats. Previous contributors to The Strategist have noted that contemporary military capabilities designed for more traditional wars cannot address the threats of contemporary forms of political warfare, and leave Australia vulnerable as a result.

A first step might be to articulate and delineate the range of adversaries that use influence operations, information activities and political warfare. What do the differences in their approaches tell us about their capabilities and strategic goals?

Only then we can identify responses that make use of the full range of diplomatic, informational, military and economic powers that democracies have in support of human rights, sovereignty and the rules-based order.