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The CCP's use of social media is part of a broader campaign of "cognitive warfare"

Chinese government and military documents state that cognitive operations aim to "capture the mind" of one's enemies by shaping an opponent's thoughts and perceptions and consequently his decisions and actions. In contrast to U.S. defense documents and strategists, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) puts cognitive warfare on par with other areas of warfare, such as air, sea and space, and believes it is the key to victory, particularly victory without bloodshed. Social media platforms are seen as the main "battlefield" of this struggle. "Cognitive warfare" is an integral part of the Sino-Russian Liminal Warfare. Since Musk bought Twitter, the involvement of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian disinformation sources has increased by about 70 percent. The ultimate question is not whether Beijing will wage cognitive warfare, but whether its target's minds and networks are already ready to fight.


by Nicola e Gabriele Iuvinale



The phrase "cognitive warfare" does not often appear in the news, but it is the fundamental concept behind the latest efforts of China in using social media to target its enemies. Recent stories range from the biggest action of shutting down thousands of fake accounts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Substack, at the attempt to spread misinformation about the Hawaii fires, to a campaign that used artificial intelligence-generated images to amplify controversial political topics in theUnited States.

Researchers and officials expect similar efforts to be targeted at the 2024 U.S. elections, as well as the potential conflict in Taiwan.

Chinese government and military documents affirm that cognitive operations aim to "capture the mind" of one's enemies, shaping an opponent's thoughts and perceptions and consequently his decisions and actions.
Unlike U.S. defense documents and strategists, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) puts cognitive warfare on par with other areas of warfare such as air, sea and space and believes it is the key to victory, especially of that without war. The "cognitive warfare" is an integral part of Sino-Russian Liminal Warfare.

Social media platforms are seen as the main battleground of this struggle.

China, through extensive research and development of its platforms, understands the power of social media in shaping narratives and cognition about events and actions. When a typical user spends 2.5 hours a day on social media-36 full days a year and 5.5 years in an average lifetime-perhaps it is not surprising that the Chinese Communist Party believes it can, over time, shape and even control social media to influence and to guide the cognitive stage of individuals and entire societies. A recent article of the PLA Daily outlines four social media tactics, dubbed "confrontational actions: Disruption of information, competition in discourse, obscuring public opinion, and blocking information.

The goal is to achieve a "invisible manipulation" and a "invisible embedding" of information production "to shape the macro structure of the target audience to recognize, define and understand events," write Duan Wenling and Liu Jiali, professors in the Military Propaganda Teaching and Research Department of the School of Political Science at China's National Defense University.

Information disorder (信息扰动).

The authors describe it as "posting specific information on social media to influence the target audience's understanding of the actual combat situation, then shape their positions and change their actions."

The "Information Disturbance" uses official social media accounts (such as CGTN, Global Times and Xinhua News) to push and shape a narrative in specific ways. Although these official channels have taken on a more strident "Wolf Warrior" tone recently, "Information Disruption" does not just mean appearing strong. In fact, the Chinese authors refer to a specific event: during the "twitter war" in 2014 between Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinian Qassam Brigade, the Palestinians managed to "gain international support by painting an image of weakness and victimhood."

The tactic, which predates social media, is reminiscent of Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦)'s Deng Xiaoping, literally translated as"Hide the brightness, feed the darkness".

The China created a specific message to target the United States(and theWest more generally) under the official PCC message that China was a humble nation focused on economic development and friendly relations with other countries. This narrative has been very powerful for decades; has shaped the policy of the United States and other nations toward China.

Speech Competition (话语竞争)


The second type is a much more subtle and gradual approach to modeling cognition. The authors describe a "trolling strategy" [拖钓], "spreading narratives through social media and online commentary, gradually influencing public perception and thus helping to achieve war or political goals." In this case, the idea is to "fuel the fire"of existing biases and manipulate emotional psychology to influence and deepen a desired narrative. The authors cite the incredible influence that "invisible manipulation"and the "invisible embedding"can have on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in international events and urge that algorithm recommendations be used to push more and more information to audiences with desired biases. Over time, emotions and biases will increase and targeted users will reject information that does not align with their perspective.

Obscuring public opinion (舆论遮蔽).

This tactic aims to flood social media with a specific narrative to influence the direction of public opinion. The main tool for "obscuring" public opinion are bots that make the narrative go viral, eliminating alternative viewpoints and news. Of note is the increasing use of artificial intelligence in Chinese influence operations;the authors refer to studies showing that a common and effective method of exerting cognitive influence is to use machine learning to mine users' emotions and biases, to select and target the most susceptible audience and then"firing"rapidly and intensely "spiritual ammunition" tailored to the target group. This was in line with another article in the PLA Daily entitled "How ChatGPT will influence the future of warfare." Here, the authors write that generative artificial intelligence can "efficiently generate huge amounts of fake news, fake images, and even fake videos for confuse the public" to a level of general social relevance.

The idea is to create, in their own words, a "flood of lies" while with broadcasting and Internet trolls creating "altered facts" and confusion about them. The goal is to create confusion in the target audience's cognition about the truths of "facts" and plays on the emotions of fear, anxiety and suspicion to create an atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and distrust. The end state for the targeted society is an atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and distrust.

Block information (信息封锁).

The fourth type focuses on "carrying out technical attacks, blocking and even physically destroying the enemy's information communication channels." The goal is to monopolize and control the flow of information by preventing an adversary from disseminating information. In this tactic--and in none of the others-- Chinese analysts believe that the United States has a huge advantage. They mention that in 2009, for example, the U.S. government authorized Microsoft to cut off the instant messaging ports of Syria, Iran, Cuba and other countries, crippling their networks and trying to "erase" them from the Internet world. The authors also mention that in 2022 Facebook has announced restrictions on certain media in Russia, Iran and other countries, but falsely claim that the company did so to eliminate negative posts against the U.S. so that the U.S. would gain an advantage in "cognitive comparison." However, this power disparity on the network is changing.

With the rise in popularity of TikTok, it is conceivable that China has the ability to shape narratives and block negative information. For example, in 2019 TikTok would suspend the account of a 17-year-old user in New Jersey after he posted a viral video criticizing the Chinese government's treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority. The China has also demonstrated its influence on the owners of popular social media platforms in Silicon Valley. Examples range from Mark Zuckerberg literally asking Xi what he should name his daughter, to the financial addiction of Elon Musk by Communist China's willingness to produce and sell Tesla cars.

In fact, Newsguard has discoveredthat since Musk bought Twitter, the involvement of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian disinformation sources has increased by about 70%.

China has also started to seek greater influence on the next versions of the Internet, where its analysts describe the incredible potential to better control the way the CCP story is told. While the United States does not have a comprehensive strategy or policy for the metaverse (which uses augmented and virtual reality technologies), the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has released a plan in 2022 five-year action to drive in this space. The plan forecastsinvestment in 100 "core" companies and the "formation of 10 public service platforms" by 2026.

Xi Jinping, in 2014 speech at the first meeting of the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity said, "Digital civilization is a world in which digital spaces create a community of shared destiny. The vast ocean of data, much like oil resources during industrialization, contains immense productive power and opportunity. Whoever controls big data technologies will control development resources and have the upper hand."

Today's world is undergoing unprecedented changes. A new technological revolution is taking place. Data, especially big data, has become a new factor in production. Information technology has become a new pinnacle of innovation. Networks have become the new infrastructure. The digital economy has become a new economic driver. Cybersecurity has become a new global challenge.

China did not invent the Internet, but it seeks to be at the forefront of its future as a medium not only for communication and commerce but also for conflict. Its own analysts openly discuss the potential power of this space to achieve regime goals that were not previously possible.

The realization of the "fourth industrial revolution of the modern era" is not only crucial for Beijing, but will also be crucial for the West and for the very survival of liberal thought. This is because there is a need to also combat the rise of Beijing's digital authoritarianism, its "Chinese version" of model, which is already manifesting global influence on multiple levels. Developing and demonstrating a democratic model of digital containment will be the "playbook" for the immediate future.

The ultimate question is not whether Beijing will engage in cognitive warfare, but whether the minds and networks of its target are already ready to fight.

Fonte Defence One

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