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WAR: Russia against democracy

PART ONE OF TWO PARTS

Democracy doesn’t work in the 21st century.

That’s the overriding message which the world’s two most powerful dictators, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, are blasting out at a still largely unsuspecting world. But it’s not merely a theme, it’s a practice. Utilizing divisive disinformation campaigns, merged with coercion, economic power, propaganda, and – in Ukraine – sheer military force, these dictators are laser focused on reshaping the world order.

Jinping and Putin, February 2022

They share a common enemy, the United States. Russia blames the U.S. for its defeat in the Cold War, and its dictator Putin has for decades schemed to rebuild Russia as a global power. That’s the focus of this analysis. In Part Two, we’ll explain why China has set its aim on the U.S. even though it was other nations which were largely responsible for the country’s so-called Century of Humiliation (1839-1949).

WEAKEN AND DIVIDE

Over the past several years, researchers have gained a thorough understanding of what Russia does in the way of executing its many Disinformation (DI) Campaigns. It practices this three-step process.

  1. Find the littlest snippet of truth to slip into the deceitful message you’re propagating
  2. Twist the narrative to support that message
  3. Amplify. Repeat. Amplify. Repeat. Amplify. Repeat.

Russia’s goal against the nations of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and other democracies can be summarized in two words: Sow Distrust. In 2016, we witnessed how Russia through its so-called “Internet Research Agency” help pit Americans against other Americans over and over again through the usage of social media platforms. As documented before in this blog site, a prime example took place when the groups “Heart of Texas” and “Save Islamic Knowledge” held a protest and counter protest on the same day, at the same place, in downtown Houston. “Heart of Texas” wasn’t from Texas, and neither was “Save Islamic Knowledge” although that wasn’t known to the half million followers (combined) of the two groups on social media. Both “groups” were creations of content trolls operating out of the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Here’s a link to a video with the details:

Do you follow the social media posts about Black Lives Matter? How about groups supporting our Police Departments? Research conduced by the   at the University of Washington proved that internet trolls from the same Internet Research Agency were busy developing fake accounts and propagating posts which amplified the messaging of both sides in 2016. There’s no doubt that additional research will prove Russian trolls were behind similar social media activity surrounding George Floyd’s murder in 2020 as well.

Anytime horror occurs in the U.S., such as Tuesday’s murder of 19 school children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Texas, Russia’s disinformation campaigners spring into action. Their inauthentic posts will be crying for BOTH gun control and Second Amendment gun rights, filled with vitriolic language and using images and memes which have already been pre-event tested to evoke the strongest possible emotional reaction from the readers of their posts. Russia doesn’t care about America’s policy or laws, but is simply exploiting the tragedy to ferment greater political and cultural division within the U.S.

While Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have improved their internal monitoring and are more active at removing what they call fake (or inauthentic) accounts, Russia still continues to employ hundreds of thousands of social media warriors to sway public sentiment all over the world towards distrusting their governments and each other. They pay agents in other countries to set up social media accounts and then utilize them to parrot Russia-selected themes.

And it’s working.

In January 2022, the 6,000-member global communications firm Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer, an annual survey of public opinion among nearly 30 different nations. Among its findings: the public has high levels of distrust of both government and media, and more than three-quarters of the public globally worries about fake news and false information being used as a weapon in their countries.

By this metric, Putin and his oligarchical henchmen are succeeding. Yevgeny Prigozhin operates the Wagner Group, the Internet Research Agency, Concord Management, and other companies which are closely aligned with the Russian military and its intelligence division, the GRU. Prigozhin was one of 13 Russian nationals a Federal grand jury indicted in 2018 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, and fraud in identification documents, all in connection with the 2016 national elections.

UKRAINE and “deNazism”

Long before its Feb. 24 invasion and effort to conquer Ukraine, Russia had begun a global disinformation campaign as an attempt to convince the world that Ukraine was a Nazi nation.

In a speech televised nationally just a few days before beginning the invasion, Putin and his top military leaders claimed that:

  • Ukraine is under foreign control and is being used as a tool against Russia.
  • Modern Ukraine wouldn’t have even existed without Russia, denying its statehood and sovereignty.
  • Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are persecuted and targets of Ukrainian genocide. (ASIDE: U.S. residents who’ve gone on relief missions to Western Ukraine all attest that a sizable percentage of displaced persons there, fleeing their homes in the east in fear of their lives, are in fact Russian-speaking Ukrainians. That’s a strange way for targets of genocide to act.)
  • US and NATO aggression are threats to Russia.

Also in this speech, Putin used the phrase “deNazification” many times to justify what he later called a “special military operation” against Ukraine. Notice the strategy Putin employs here. Soviet Union dictator Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the 1930s. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it conquered large portions of European Russia and much of Ukraine as well. Some Ukrainians sided militarily with the Germans, seeing them as liberators who would throw off the yoke of Soviet Union oppression against their country.

Putin’s strategy: Sow Distrust. He believed he would get large segments of the Ukrainian population to assent to Russia’s invasion, using the false pretexts he outlined. But what Putin and his military planners had not taken into consideration was that Ukrainian leaders, especially President Vladimir Zelensky, would oppose Russia’s military invasion with a tenacity and an unshakeable determination to triumph over the invading forces. Russia continues to press attacks against Ukrainian military forces, especially in the Donbas and Donetsk regions, where Russia has sponsored military units and guerilla-type warfare against Ukraine since it also annexed Crimea in 2014.

What Putin and his cronies hadn’t counted on was world condemnation, harsh sanctions, and a near-unanimous decision among European Union nations and the U.S. to take punitive action against Russia for its invasion. And as evidence of war crimes mounts, Russia’s status as a pariah nation cut off from most of the world will continue to grow.

(Aside: Zelensky’s grandfather fought in the Soviet Red Army against the Nazis, and Nazi Germany invaders burned the village where his great grandparents lived, killing the residents.)

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

As Russia continues to press its attacks against Ukraine, you too can arm yourself against disinformation. Check on the veracity of ANY post or meme you see on social media before sharing it.

First Draft has developed a terrific acrostic and a visual to remind journalists and all of us about disinformation’s dangers – don’t be SHEEP.  In this acrostic, the word stands for Source, History, Evidence, Emotions and Pictures. See the visual definition below:

First Draft News’ founding organizations include Bellingcat and the Google News Initiative

SOME RESOURCES FOR TRACKING RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION

Fortunately, there are organizations carefully monitoring and reporting on Russia’s disinformation campaigns. The best ones are based in Europe, and include involvement from former Iron Curtain countries which obtained their freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990.

Want to see about 14,000 examples of Russian disinformation in action? You can through the website www.euvsdisinfo.eu Which is the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force . It was established in 2015 to better forecast, address, and respond to the Russian Federation’s ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the European Union, its member states, and neighboring countries.

EUvsDisinfo’s core objective is to increase public awareness and understanding of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations, and to help citizens in Europe and beyond develop resistance to digital information and media manipulation. Many of the articles on the EUVSDISINFO website are also available as podcasts. Here’s a link to a recent article which chronicles Russia’s disinformation and lies about the impending global food shortage: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/disinformation-fuelling-food-insecurity/

The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a nonpartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, develops comprehensive strategies to deter, defend against, and raise the costs on autocratic efforts to undermine and interfere in democratic institutions. ASD has staff in Washington, D.C., and Brussels, bringing together experts on disinformation, malign finance, emerging technologies, elections integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as Russia, China, and the Middle East, to collaborate across traditional stovepipes and develop cross-cutting frameworks. You can learn more here:

https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/about-us/

Of interest is ASD’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker, which catalogues the Russian and Chinese governments’ activities to undermine democracy in more than 40 transatlantic countries since 2000 using five tools: information manipulation, cyber operations, malign finance, civil society subversion, and economic coercion. Here’s a link to it: https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/toolbox/authoritarian-interference-tracker/

In PART TWO, “Right Into the Danger Zone” we’ll be analyzing how China has ramped up both its global media influence and its disinformation campaigns after escaping world condemnation for its role in causing Covid-19.

SOME SOURCES USED FOR THIS COLUMN:

EU vs. DIsinfo: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/a-guide-to-deciphering-pro-kremlin-disinformation-around-putins-war/

EU vs. DIsinfo: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/the-bucha-massacre-how-to-deflect-attention-in-poland/

Edelman: https://www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer

National Public Radio : https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/27/us/politics/russia-cyberattacks-ukraine.html

New York Times: https://www.proquest.com/nytimes/docview/2661651060/C3B5E6216D89455CPQ/2?accountid=36446

Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/my-russian-mother-in-law-believes-putin-aggression-family-propoganda-nazi-ukraine-11653596104?mod=hp_opin_pos_2#cxrecs_s

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevgeny_Prigozhin

FINAL NOTE: What do I read and watch for facts about Russia’s warfare against Ukraine? The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) has become a trusted source for both news and analysis. For day-to-day tactical analysis, the Institute for the Study of War’s website provides excellent information about on-the-ground battle activity. Its website is www.understandingwar.org You’re welcome to contact me at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu or at 216.987.5040 for more information regarding disinformation campaigns.

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CHINA vs. THE TRUTH

PART ONE: A brief analysis of the People’s Republic of China’s Three Warfares, and how it conducts disinformation (DI) campaigns and media warfare

Lost amid endless speculation in social media about the outbreak of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a simple reality: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which runs the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in Year 17 of its San Zhan, or “Three Warfares” strategy to gain long-term dominance in the world. China’s leadership has self identified public opinion and media warfare (its terms) as a key activities in the second of these three warfare areas. Those three areas are:

  1. Legal
  2. Public Opinion
  3. Psychological
A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to be tested for the CCP virus in Wuhan, China
on May 15, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images) This appears in The Epoch Times, Dec. 2, 2020

A critical component of the second area, public opinion, is Disinformation (DI). The PRC employs DI campaigns extensively in an effort, sometimes successful, to shape and mold public opinion across the globe in its favor. The truth is irrelevant in China. Social media is used as both a tool to keep the populace misinformed, to suppress opposition, and to shape internal opinion in a way deemed most beneficial to the CCP. Externally, the PRC employs a vast army of millions of social media campaigners and propagandists, some disguised as journalists working abroad, to tell its story.

Media in the U.S. and elsewhere has caught on to some aspects of this. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of San Diego concluded that the CCP puts out nearly 450 million fake social media posts a year.[1] Much to its credit, the New York Times has at times aggressively covered Chinese DI campaigns. The media outlet reported on this in August and September 2019 when Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube removed Chinese social media accounts that were linked to China, including taking action to eliminate 1,000 and suspend 200,000 more Twitter accounts. Ironically, China prohibits Twitter in its country but makes extensive use of Twitter in DI campaigns aimed at other countries and especially at Chinese living abroad. In Beijing alone, China has two million people working on propaganda and DI campaigns. “The end goal is to control the conversation,” Matt Schrader, a China analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, told the Times reporters.[2]

This is the first in a multi-part series about China and DI campaigns. Today’s portion provides important background and covers some of China’s practices prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. The next part will deal exclusively with the Coronavirus and how the CCP has responded to this crisis, lied about aspects of it, and attempted to propagandize it into pro-Chinese and anti-Western themes.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Stefan Halper is a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, where he was once Director of American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies. There he lectured on latter 20th Century US foreign policy, China, and contemporary international security issues. Halper holds doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. He is a Life Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Halper has served four American presidents in the White House and Department of State.[3]

More recently, Halper became entangled in the FBI’s “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” scandal, allegedly helping conduct government surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016. While noteworthy, Halper’s involvement in these activities took place three years AFTER he had prepared and submitted a 559-page report, titled China: The Three Warfares for the Office of Net Assessment. 

What is the Office of Net Assessment? Created in the early 1970s, it is an independent organization within the Department of Defense and is charged with identifying emerging or future threats and opportunities for the United States.[4] Prior to 2013, Halper had produced two similar analyses for the Office of Net Assessment; The Iraq War in 2005 and The Afghan End Game in 2010.

A comprehensive study of China: The Three Warfares would turn anyone into an expert on China’s government, military and diplomacy. This work has six project advisors, three of them being retired U.S. Navy admirals. There are 11 Contributors, all field experts, whose papers and interviews are part of the overall project. There are about 850 footnotes to the main report, dozens of primary sources, and hundreds of open source materials and secondary sources (news reports, briefs) cited as well.

Here’s just one example: Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in India’s navy. One of the contributors to China: Three Warfares, Bhaskar wrote a paper appearing within the report titled “China’s Three Warfares Concept Related to India and the Indian Ocean Region.” In it, Bhaskar writes, “There is one suggestion that the Chinese have dug deep into their own historical records of military strategy, going back to Sun Tzu ( c. 540 BC) who laid great emphasis on the imperative of ‘winning without engaging in War.’”[5] Today Bhaskar is the director of Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based independent think tank.

Graphic depicting Century of Humiliation. Source: Sutori.com

Halper and his collaborators provide an important historical context behind China: Three Warfares. The report covers the Century of Humiliation, or the period in China’s history when Western powers, Russia and Japan all extracted concessions from an ever-weaker Chinese government. This began in the 19th Century, and continued into the 20th Century when China suffered greatly at the hands of Imperial Japan. Vestiges of this period exert a strong influence on the thinking of China’s leaders, who are concerned about cultural identity despite their nation’s burgeoning manufacturing base and economy. “Sweeping Western influence is not a new problem,” reads a 2011 opinion article in Xinhuanet, the official news agency of the PRC. “As an importer of cultural products, ideas and technologies since the 19th Century, China has every reason to worry about its cultural identity.”[6]

In more recent times, China believed that the United States and (to a lesser extent) NATO used propaganda and public opinion strategies to obtain widespread support for the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, for removing Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia in the late 1990s, and then in the second Persian Gulf War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. “Indeed, the ability of coalition forces to undermine popular support for the (removal of the)Milosevic and Saddam Hussein regimes, influence global views, and preserve domestic support are seen by the PRC as key factors in the outcome of each conflict,” writes Dean Cheng, Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.[7]

HOW THREE WARFARES WORKS

In his project, Halper traces the origins of San Zhan and the Three Warfares (TW) back to 2003, when the CCP published them as “political work regulations” for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although the individual(s) in China who developed the strategy are not identified, writings about it clearly identify TW as asymmetrical and warlike in practice. Its purpose is to change the mindset of China’s political and military leaders away from conventional warfare, expanding areas of conflict to the political realm of opposing nations, to the manipulation of public opinion, and to legal systems as well.

One key aspect of this is a strong desire on the part of the PRC to improve its projection of soft power. Joseph Nye coined this term, defining it as like-minded cultural, ideological and institutional policies, in the Clinton administration.[8] Nye believed that soft power could help a nation, the U.S., shape the world. “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.” He argued, “if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.” 

Cheng posits that China has been striving assiduously to counter an American advantage in global access and coverage. For example, in one article China’s propaganda guidelines call for it to seek news dominance (xinwen quan) and information dominance (xinxi quan) on a path resulting in psychological dominance (xinli quan).[9] To this end, in September 2011 the Chinese Foreign Ministry began offering press briefings daily, supplanting the old twice-a-week briefing frequency. China created a 24-hour English language global news service (CNC World English Channel), and expanded its state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) to operate on a more global level.[10]

China has also poured tremendous resources into social media and the internet as well (more about this in Part Two). Additionally, the development and expansion of Confucius Institutes, which have a purpose of promoting Chinese language training and also focus on providing information about China’ education, culture, economy and society, is another strategic effort aimed at soft power. There are more than 530 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents as of 2019.

Within the PLA, there are four stated goals in the area of media warfare:

  1. Preserve friendly morale
  2. Generate public support at home and abroad
  3. Weaken an enemy’s will to fight
  4. Alter an enemy’s situational assessment.[11]

To accomplish these, Chinese strategists and tacticians follow “Four Pillars of Media Warfare.” Planners in the PLA pursue these four points:

  1. Top-down guidance: Media warfare is consistent with the larger national strategy, as outline by the senior leaders of the PRC and the CCP. Tacticians follow high-level guidance on both content and timing of any news.
  2. Pre-emption: The first to broadcast or release news on social media gains the advantage by dominating the message and better framing the debate, which then defines the parameters of subsequent coverage.
  3. Flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions: Operations remain flexible and adjustable given different political and military circumstances.
  4. “All available” resources: China combines peacetime and military operations to pursue civilian-military integration and local unity to leverage both its commercial and civilian assets (news organizations, broadcasting facilities, internet users) in a comprehensive and systematic campaign.[12]

Peter Mattis, who worked as an international affairs analyst for the U.S. and is now a Fellow in the China Program at the Jamestown Foundation, details the steps which China’s government and its PLA take in a crisis with respect to the U.S. They are:[13]

  1. Establish China’s version of the incident: Beijing will issue statements at or near the beginning of each crisis in order to establish a Chinese position on what happened.
  2. Statement of principles for resolution of an incident: Chinese officials will point to these at the start of any negotiations as setting parameters for discussions to follow. These are considered minimally-acceptable points which meet Beijing’s commitments to the Chinese public. This incorporates the TW concept, and are described for both foreign and domestic audiences.
  3. Shut down any unofficial but normal information channels: U.S. officials often complain that their Chinese counterparts will refuse any communication, including personal channels, once a crisis begins. That is because PRC leadership is establishing information control and dominance of the media and (if possible) social media to as to continuously frame and shape the ensuing debate.
  4. Emphasize Beijing’s commitment to the U.S.-China relationship: This is a version of the “blame game” which PRC will play by making the crisis a testing point of U.S. goodwill and future intentions towards China. Usually in the onset, Beijing will firmly express its own commitment to bilateral relations, implying that Washington does not take the relationship as seriously as does China. [14]

EXAMPLE: HONG KONG PROTESTS

The Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, representatives of the FBI and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, the MITRE Corp, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others have written an Analytic Exchange Program White Paper titled Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns. It was published in October 2019. [Email me at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu, and I’d be glad to share a copy with you.] A sentence of the executive summary reads,“….disinformation campaigns should be viewed as a whole-of-society problem requiring action by government stakeholders, commercial entities, media organizations, and other segments of a civil society.”[15] Another section says the following:

A targeted disinformation campaign … is more insidious than simply telling lies on the internet. One untrue meme or contrived story may be a single thread in a broader operation seeking to influence a target population through methods that violate democratic values, societal norms, and in some jurisdictions, the law.

A disinformation campaign occurs when a person, group of people, or entity (a “threat actor”) coordinate to distribute false or misleading information while concealing the true objectives of the campaign. The objectives of disinformation campaigns can be broad (e.g., sowing discord in a population) or targeted (e.g. propagating a counternarrative to domestic protests) and may employ all information types (disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, propaganda, and true information). The target of a disinformation campaign is the person or group the threat actor aims to influence in order to achieve the campaign’s objectives.

In the White Paper, AEP chronicled the PRC disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the protestors and the larger pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019 as one of its two examples of disinformation campaigns. Citing The Guardian(UK) and the Washington Post, AEP pointed out how social media platforms removed or suspended more than 200,000 fraudulent accounts circulating false information.[16]

The New York Times reported that China’s strategy was to create an alternative version of events which it claimed would only lead to bloodshed and violence. China asserted that last year’s protests were not supported by Hong Kong residents and provoked by foreign agents. China’s goal is to undermine sympathy for the seven million residents of Hong Kong and for the protesters’ demands for greater freedoms. This stems from a Chinese government-written bill presented in spring 2019 that would have allowed residents accused of crimes to be sent for trial  to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty, mainly mainland China.[17]

As the protests continued throughout the summer of 2019, China ramped up a two-pronged DI campaigned aimed at internal and external audiences. The AEP White Paper pointed out that the “threat actor” originating this disinformation campaign was the Chinese government, and that the campaign established fake Facebook and Twitter profiles as Americans living in Nevada, Ohio and Texas. Additionally, the Chinese used their state-run media (China Daily, Xinhua News, CGTN) to place paid advertisements on Twitter and Facebook. The main purpose of the campaign was to discredit the pro-democracy movement. The campaign pushed narratives praising the police, and depicting the Hong Kong protestors as terrorists and cockroaches.[18]

As the protests escalated, police tactics turned more violent and China intensified an already-aggressive DI campaign aimed at both internal and external audiences. The internal communication has been especially vile and heinous. Here’s an example: Weibo, a Chinese-controlled social media service similar to Twitter, has posts calling for violent action against the protestors.

“Beating them to a pulp is not enough,”one person said about protesters on Tuesday, echoing an increasingly common sentiment on Weibo. “They must be beaten
to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up.”[19]

AEP’s White Paper cites the extensive use of bots which DI campaigners employ to greatly amplify their messages. A “bot” is a computer algorithm designed to execute online tasks autonomously and repetitively, simulating the behavior of human beings in social networks and interacting with social media users by sharing information and messages. According to one researcher, in 2017 there were 23 million bots on Twitter, 140 million bots on Facebook and 27 million bots on Instagram. About 5 to 8 percent of all social media accounts are NOT authentic but instead are bots. [20]

According to AEP, China’s government made extensive use of bots to repost and spread false narratives against the Hong Kong protestors.  It classifies “threat actors” as those who are originating the campaigns. If you hit “Share” or “Retweet” a fake story, AEP classifies you as an “Unwitting Agent” of a disinformation effort.[21]

Like their counterparts in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere, the Chinese propagandists and DI campaigners are adept at selecting words, pictures, and phrases designed to evoke emotions and to get you – and others – to “Share” their posts. Thus you might unknowingly help their efforts.

Governments, businesses small and large, and media conglomerates have all become intertwined economically with the PRC over the past 20 years. At the same time, China has greatly expanded its propaganda and DI campaign activity. Only after comprehending Three Warfares, San Zhan, and its ramifications can one reach logical conclusions with respect to how PRC has approached the Covid-19 outbreak. Details are coming in Part Two.

SOURCES

[1] Drew, Kevin “Social Media With Chinese Characteristics,” US News & World Report, June 2016, retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-06-01/china-fakes-nearly-450-million-social-media-posts-research-shows

[2] Zhong, Raymond; Myers, Steven; and Wu, Jin “How China Unleashed Twitter Trolls to Discredit Hong Kong’s Protesters,” September 2019, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/09/18/world/asia/hk-twitter.html?searchResultPosition=6

[3]Halper, Stefan “China: The Three Warfares,” May 2013, Office of Net Assessment, retrieved from https://cryptome.org/2014/06/prc-three-wars.pdf

[4] Gady, Franz-Stefan “The Future of Net Assessment at the Pentagon,” June 2015, The Diplomat, retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-future-of-net-assessment-at-the-pentagon/

[5] Halper, op. cit., page 476

[6] Xinhuanet, “China’s Cultural Security Lies in Openness and Exchanges,” October 2011, retrieved from http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2011-10/27/content_23739682.html

[7] Cheng, Dean, “Winning Without Fighting: China’s Public Opinion Warfare and the Need for a Robust American Response,” p. 3, November 2012, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, p. 3, retrieved from http://report.heritage.org/bg2745

[8]  Li, Eric “The Rise and Fall of Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, August 2018, Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/20/the-rise-and-fall-of-soft-power/

[9] Cheng, op. cit., p. 7

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, p. 4

[12] Ibid

[13] Mattis, Peter. ‘Out with the New, In with the Old: Interpreting China’s “New Type of International Relations”’. Jamestown Foundation, China Brief. Volume 13, Issue 9. April 25, 2013

[14] Ibid

[15] Analytic Exchange Program, Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaign, October 2019, p. 2

[16] Ibid, p. 19

[17] Myers, Steven Lee and Mozur, Paul, “China is waging a disinformation war against Hong Kong protesters,” New York Times, August 18, 2019, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/13/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-china.html

[18] AEP, op. cit., pages 19-20

[19] Ibid

[20] Center for Information Technology and Society, “How is Fake News Spread? Bots, People like You, Trolls and Microtargeting,” U.C. Santa Barbara, retrieved from https://www.cits.ucsb.edu/fake-news/spread

[21] AEP, op. cit., page 21

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So how did we get here?

An Interactive Blog Post by JOHN KEREZY (contact details at the front of the page)

The weekend, end of October 2020, all across America

A Latina woman in Florida checks her cell phone. Much of her information comes across her feeds in Spanish. She sees numerous stories about presidential candidate Joe Biden being a pedophile. She shakes her head in disgust as her fingers scroll through the articles.

The Lincoln Project is a political action committee operated by a group of Republicans opposed to Donald Trump’s re-election. This group reposts stories on its social media accounts about the group “Proud Boys” allegedly sending emails to voters in Florida, threatening them with physical violence if they vote for Trump. Unbeknown to the group, the emails actually came from malicious agents in Iran trying to influence the 2020 presidential election. The FBI identified and announced this days ago, and the Treasury Dept. put economic sanctions into place against the Iranian groups involved, but not before communicators from the Lincoln Project became unwitting dupes advancing the phony Iran messaging.

A man in Ohio looks at his Apple News Feed at the beginning of his Saturday. He’s heard stories about a laptop computer belonging to one of Joe Biden’s sons, Hunter, containing thousands of emails and documents linking the Biden family to corruption and money laundering by obtaining millions of dollars in contracts from foreign nations and businesses. These news stories originated from The New York Post (the paper Alexander Hamilton founded) more than two weeks ago, but not a single major news outlet has picked up on the story. The man scans through the first 50 stories in his Apple News. There’s nothing about that laptop or Hunter Biden. But there are several stories listed in the feed which are highly critical of Donald Trump.

So just how DID we get here?

In what is the most advanced democracy in the world, how did the U.S. become so inundated with false information (misinformation) and so many campaigns designed to cause intentional harm (disinformation) to others?

How did we get to the point where all of the nation’s major news outlets extensively reported on another media outlet (The Atlantic) story that President Trump called dead soldiers “suckers” and losers” without a single person going on the record verifying that he actually said these words, despite dozens of people (some now hostile to Trump, such as John Bolton) stating that he never made these statements?

Yet why do these very same media outlets ignore Hunter Biden’s laptop contents weeks later, even after the FBI issues a statement that the device from which the emails and documents emanated is genuine? Why do the nation’s largest social media services, Facebook and Twitter, amplify the Trump “suckers and losers” story and suppress or outright censor the Hunter Biden laptop story? 

TERMS, AND HOW DISINFORMATION SPREADS

DISINFORMATION is not real. It is manufactured information, deliberately created and disseminated with the intent to cause harm. If it is done repeatedly, it’s part of a Disinformation (DI) campaign. So in the first example, any communication identifying former vice president Joe Biden as a pedophile would be disinformation. And yes, some of many dozens of DI campaigns in operation in the 2020 election have spread “fake news” (more on that below) about Joe Biden.

MISINFORMATION is false information shared without the intent to mislead. Did you ever give your spouse the wrong starting time for a party or social gathering, by mistake? That’s misinformation.

MALINFORMATION is genuine information, generally private or revealing, which may be distributed in a campaign to cause harm to a person’s reputation with the purpose of furthering the campaign’s objective. There are a lot of malinformation operations taking place in the 2020 election cycle as well.

In its October 2019 report, the Analytic Exchange Project (AEP) calls us – Jane Average and Joe Average Americans – the “unwitting actors” in Disinformation (DI) campaigns. With specificity, AEP is describing people who see something on social media and then simply sharing it on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts. They don’t first examine the source of the information carefully, usually because it matches something which they believe.

And precisely what is the source of all this information? Let’s just look at one social media platform, the largest in the world, Facebook. Here’s a quick glance:

  • There are about 3 billion Facebook accounts in the world
  • About 70 percent of all U.S. adults and 75 percent of “high income” US adults are on Facebook
  • The average FB user logs on eight times a day and spends a least an hour on the platform
  • Nearly 45 percent of Facebook users say it is a major source for their news
  • There are more than 350 million photos uploaded to Facebook every day
  • More than 4 billion videos are viewed on Facebook every day. (This is more video content than all the major news and cable news networks, and the TV newsrooms in the top 200 media markets in the U.S., combined, present to their audiences each year.)
  • More than 35 percent of the top stories on Facebook are related to politics
  • There are at least 120 million fake accounts on Facebook

(Aside: If Trump is re-elected, watch for how Facebook “gets blamed” for it.)

There, in social media, lies the problem. In fact, that step – you and me not checking and instead spreading disinformation – is precisely what the DI campaigners are counting on the get out their harmful messaging. Videos containing disinformation are being circulated and shared via texts messages, via Messenger, and via other social media platforms tens of millions of times each day in the U.S. They are part of DI campaigns about Covid-19, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, vaccinations, 5G cell phone networks, and many other important subjects.

YOUR TURN: Go to the website www.spotthetroll.org and go through the eight simple questions appearing there. Pay attention to the answer and explanation there. This site, from the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University, provides each visitor with an excellent explanation of how trolling, a precursor to disinformation, happens. Watch who your “friends” are on social media. Don’t be an unwitting actor to spreading disinformation in the final months of 2020.

DI WITHIN DI: Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election

Disinformation has been going on for hundreds of years. The Philadelphia Aurora, a newspaper which Benjamin Franklin’s grandson published in the 1790s, ran dozens of fake and defamatory news stories in the late 1790s aimed at our nation’s second president, John Adams. These accounts contributed to Adams’ loss in the presidential campaign of 1800.

The former Soviet Union researched human behavior when it decided to employ Disinformation as a major part of its propaganda activities against enemies in Europe and the U.S. in the Cold War era. In the book Disinformation, authors Ion Mihai Pacepa (a defector from behind the Iron Curtain) and Ron Rychlak documented dozens of cases where DI campaigns changed hearts and minds. The Soviets, and the Russians succeeding them, have perfected a three-step disinformation process. The steps are:

  1. Begin with a kernel of truth from an authentic artifact (a document, video, etc.)
  2. Change or twist that kernel to suit the objectives of your campaign.
  3. Amplify the disinformation. Repeat, Repeat, and Repeat. If you’re caught, always deny and blame it on your opponent or the “other side” in the court of public opinion

If you want to know more about this topic, Papeca and Rychlak’s 2013 book is an excellent starting point. The full title is:  Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism.

Also, The New York Times produced an excellent three-part video series on this topic. Here’s a link to it:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/what-is-disinformation-fake-news-playlist

Now let’s roll back to July 2016. Around the time when candidate Donald Trump said sarcastically, “Russia, if you’re listening….” about trying to retrieve missing tens of thousands of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, little did he know what was about to happen.

In materials provided to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in late September and early October, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has made the following assertions. (A copy of his Sept. 29, 2020, letter launching this process is available below.)

  • It was the Clinton for President campaign which created the story of Trump being under Russian influence in July 2016. It was done expressly to deflect attention away from the missing email scandal, and an attempt to tie Trump to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
  • Next the Clinton campaign, using third parties, paid for the production of the Steele Dossier which contained allegedly “compromising” material about Trump. (Much of this material has since been proven to be false. Erik Wemple, media critic for the Washington Post, has written more than a dozen articles about this. Want more details? Do an internet search using the words “Erik Wemple Steele dossier” for verification)
  • CIA Director (at the time) John Brennan briefed the Obama administration and President Obama personally about this in September 2016.
  • Despite knowing these facts, top officials at the FBI asked the FISA Court for warrants to wiretap (conduct telephone and other surveillance) of people associated with the Trump campaign, alleging possible Russian influence with the Trump campaign in the applications.
  • In September 2016, U.S. intelligence officials actually forwarded an investigative referral (recommendation of a criminal investigation) to FBI Director James Comey regarding “U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server.” Of course no criminal action was taken against Clinton. But there was a Special Prosecutor appointed and nearly $50 million spent on an investigation about whether Trump had colluded in Russia.

In other words, Clinton for President was behind the disinformation campaign tying Trump to Russia, the Obama administration knew this, and “looked the other way” as the campaign unfolded. Here is Director Ratcliffe’s letter:

The internet news media outlet Vox reported on this less than a month ago:

“In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

Terrible enough? There is also evidence suggesting that Russia took advantage of the situation and used its assets to help provide phony information appearing in the Steele Dossier. The nation which is foremost at conducting DI campaigns, Russia, probably used its disinformation assets and contributed to the Clinton smear effort against Trump.

(NOTE: To be clear, Russian disinformation WAS happening in the 2016 election cycle. This website has chronicled numerous instances of that, and the FBI and researchers are still looking for more wrong doing.)

What the Clinton campaign apparently had done is also most significant because, a month after her election defeat, it was Clinton who accused the news media of helping cause her defeat. She also re-introduced the term ‘fake news’ into the public vernacular. Below is an excerpt from a USA Today (Gannett) story:

One danger is the “malicious threat of fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year,” said Clinton in December 2016.  “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real world consequences” including for the “lives of ordinary people,” she added. “It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.”

We all know the next portion of the disinformation narrative from here. “Fake News” became the mantra which Trump then adopted, criticizing the media for bias and/or inaccurate news coverage. This led to many media outlets redoubling their investments in fact checking operations. News organizations also sprang up to get involved in fake news and disinformation identification. Google funded (and continues to support) the efforts of First Draft News, for example. Major colleges and universities launched various fact checking initiatives.

More recently, media outlets began adding Disinformation/Misinformation activities to their reporting efforts. For example, “Daily Distortions” is now a regular part of the New York Times. Here is a link to it:
https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/disinformation

Fact Checking and Disinformation/Misinformation operations serve many purposes. But their existence acknowledges the most basic truth of all: every media outlet is biased. This has also been chronicled in earlier posts on this website.

YOUR TURN: Get the name of your favorite media outlet. Then go to mediabiasfactcheck.com and type or “copy and paste” in the name of that outlet. See what you find.

Media Bias Fact Check is operated by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to improving the practice of professional journalism since its founding in 1975. It also is the sponsor of the International Fact Checking Network. In my opinion, these are far less biased sources than many of the other fact checker and disinformation checking operations today.

MEDIA ATTITUDES TOWARD TRUMP IN HIS FIRST TERM OF OFFICE

After Trump became president, already-bad relations between the president and the reporters and the media outlets covering the White House exacerbated. There is no need to chronicle that deterioration, save to state that there is plenty of fault or blame on both sides, and it has been disastrous for journalism and the American democracy.

When researchers look, they have discovered that – as conservatives complain – media coverage of Trump has been much more negative than positive. Pew Research conducted an analysis of news stories about Trump during his first months in office. Normally media coverage of new presidents is favorable, but not on this instance. A 2017 National Public Radio report on the research stated that two-thirds of the news stories about Trump were negative, more than twice the negativity seen in stories from the first 60 days of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama’s presidencies.  Only 5 percent of the stories on Trump were positive, compared to a 42 percent positive ranking for his predecessor, Obama. (Link to the research is below).

As Trump’s term progressed, negativity in news coverage only increased. According to the Media Research Center, fully 92 percent of the major networks’ stories about Trump are now negative. It conducted a content analysis (measuring every mention) of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden from late June through early October. Here is what they found:

“During the twelve weeks we examined, Trump received 839 minutes of coverage, compared to just 269 minutes of airtime for Biden, a three-to-one disparity….Even more lopsided, our analysts found ten times more evaluative statements about Trump than Biden: 890 comments about the President, of which 822 (92.4%) were negative, vs. 68 (7.6%) that were positive….”

“Biden’s media profile might be a dream-come-true for a presidential nominee, especially one favored in the polls. (Link is to Real Clear Politics.)Out of 91 evaluative comments, Biden benefitted from 60 positive statements, vs. only 31 that were negative, adding up to a sunny 66% positive good press score.”

In fact, one of the most significant differences in media coverage of the 2020 election compared to 2016 has been how the “major” news television networks have covered the Democratic Party candidates. The graphic below, also from the Media Research Center, chronicles this shift.

The tilt against Trump has extended to social media also. Conservatives have complained for years about their social media posts being censored or blocked. Some have been shadow banned and/or put in “Facebook jail” for days due to their posts.

No social media platform has been more biased against Trump than Twitter. With nearly 88 million followers on his Twitter account, Trump has used this outlet repeatedly to get his word out, rather than allow negative or uncovered news from traditional media outlets to dominate what’s known as the news cycle. But recently Twitter took steps to curb Trump’s tweets. The Media Research Center examined Tweets from Trump and from the Biden campaign between May 30, 2018, and October 16, 2020. Here’s what it found:

“Twitter has been far and away the biggest offender, labeling, fact-checking, and removing Trump’s tweets and the tweets from his campaign accounts 64 times since the president’s election.” Biden has had zero posts challenged or removed.

(Separately, another Media Research Center analysis showed that Twitter and Facebook employees making political contributions gave to Democrats 90 percent of the time in 2020. It is worth noting that Anna Makanju, Facebook’s global policy manager for content regulation, formerly served as an adviser to then VP Joe Biden on Ukraine policy. Nick Pacilio, former press secretary for Kamala Harris, is now a senior communications manager with Twitter and is involved in its censorship decisions.)

Big Tech favoritism of the “left” over the “right” came to a head on October 14, when the New York Post printed the first in a multi-part series of stories accusing Joe Biden’s son Hunter of corruption by using his father’s connections to land multi-million dollar consulting contracts. Twitter censored – removed – the story from many person Twitter accounts and suspended the New York Post’s Twitter account. As of this writing (10/29) that account is still suspended. This raises much larger First Amendment and Section 230 (of the Communications Decency Act of 1996) questions which are over/above the purview of this article.

Cover of New York Post, October 29, 2020

Of course social media also deserves credit for becoming much better and more proactive in combatting Disinformation campaigns. Facebook has removed thousands of pages and accounts emanating from Russia, China, Iran, and other places due to what it calls “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” for example. But that does not offset the “tilt” which Big Tech has done against Trump and those on the “right” or the conservative side of the political ledger.

There are hundreds of different social media websites today. Some “lean” to the left, others lean to the right. Like us, these outlets have biases too. But the largest (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) should received universal condemnation from everyone who cares about the First Amendment and freedom of the press when they practice censorship.

CABLE NEWS & BIG TECH FEED REPULSION

YOUR TURN : Open up a search window in Google and type in the words “Obama without evidence” into it. See the total number of items which appear. Read just 4-5 of them. Chance are that at least one story critical of Trump for claiming without evidence that his predecessor did something.

Now open another search window and type in the words “Trump without evidence” into it. Chances are you’ll see 4-5 times the number of items you found the first time. Read just a few of them and draw your own conclusion.

This simple experiment also demonstrates how both “Big Tech” (Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets) have contributed to creating and feeding the political digital divide in the U.S.

As Big Tech practices become more observable (and some platforms such as Facebook resist external analysis efforts) researchers are able to discern more about how social media platforms impact us. David Sabin-Miller and Dr. Daniel Abrams are mathematicians with the Dept. of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics at Northwestern University. Their research, titled “When Pull Turns to Shove: A Continuous-Time Model for Opinion Dynamics” has been published in the October 2020 edition of Phys.Rev.Research.

The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims explained the work of Sabin-Miller and Abrams in his recent article, Why Social Media Is So Good at Polarizing Us. He points out that social media platform algorithms tend to magnify punch—that is, they operate on the principle that if it is outrageous, it’s contagious—when we’re exposed to a differing view, it often takes an extreme form, one that seems personally noxious to us. This, social media managers know, helps lure us into spending more time on their platforms.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of echo chambers, repeatedly seeing viewings reinforcing our own, as prevalent in social media. We accept that as a given. And until now, some researchers and especially sociologists have posited the belief that seeing opposite points of view would have a positive effect on individuals and the general public. It would make us more reflective, more tolerant of other viewpoints.

Sabin-Miller and Abrams’ research seems to prove just the opposite. Repulsion of opposing viewpoints is more powerful in social media than attraction to one’s own side of a debate. Their findings support a conclusion that social media is contributing to the further polarization of our nation.

That’s just the opposite of what the U.S. needs right now.

SOURCES CITED (over/above documents provide and/or linked in the blog itself)

Definitions from Claire Wardle, “Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary” Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center, July 2018

https://www.socialpilot.co/blog/social-media-statistics

Ion Mihai PacepaRonald J. Rychlak, Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism. (2013)

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/12/08/hillary-clinton-cites-fake-news-urgent-threat-democracy/95161136/

https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/518853-trump-official-releases-unverified-russian-intel-on-clinton

https://www.npr.org/2017/10/02/555092743/study-news-coverage-of-trump-more-negative-than-for-other-presidents

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/10/1/21497176/john-ratcliffe-russia-intelligence-hillary-clinton-donald-trump

https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/rich-noyes/2020/10/27/never-more-biased-tv-blasts-trump-92-negative-coverage-66-positive

https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/techwatch/corinne-weaver/2020/10/19/twitter-facebook-censored-trump-campaign-65-times-leave

FINAL NOTE

There are some new developments since I completed this blog on October 29. One is the report from some news outlets (Sinclair Broadcasting and CBS News among them) that the FBI has an ongoing active investigation in Hunter Biden’s business activities, allegedly for money laundering activities. The other is reporting from various sources that a 64-page fake intelligence report has been circulating about Hunter Biden. If you’ve read this far, neither development should be a surprise.

Finally, on October 30, Twitter unblocked the New York Post’s Twitter feed and account. This comes 16 days after it blocked the paper’s initial three stories about Hunter Biden’s business activities, and possible corruption and money laundering associated with them.

Featured

You want to tear us apart even more?

Today and every day, Facebook gets over 8 billion video views. There are 100 million hours of video watched on Facebook daily.

There are more than 1 billion mobile device views of YouTube videos, per day, and this statistic dates to a month before the onset of Covid-19. As of February 2020, the average YouTube user watches more than 40 minutes of video per day, and – again – this was the number prior to Covid-19.

We could look at Instagram (more than 100 million new pictures and videos a day), SnapChat (more than 400 million new stories created daily), and other social media platforms as well. The results would state the obvious: We’re awash with videos and pictures, and we get a significant portion of our daily information from these various platforms.

How much of it is true?

How many of all these videos and pictures are real? What percentage might be false, intentionally created and promoted to spread phony narratives to the public?

Russia is behind many DI campaigns surrounding Covid-19

Each and every time we share a video, picture, or cute meme on the internet we are doing many things, including:

  • Validating that we believe the video or picture as being true.
  • Asking our FRANs (friends, relatives, acquaintances and neighbors) to look at it, evaluate it, and re-share it.
  • Revealing a bit about ourselves (our personal beliefs and values) to others.

So if you spend an hour or more a day on social media platforms, how much time do you devote to checking what you see or read PRIOR TO deciding to share it with others? As much as five minutes? Less?

You should be checking. According to an October 2019 white paper study from Analytical Exchange Project, a combined study done conducted by the Dept. of Homeland Security, Defense Dept. contractors, and others under the guidance of the Director of National Intelligence, disinformation is a major problem facing the U.S. and other democracies.

“These (social media technology) changes have made it easier for threat actors to spread disinformation and exploit the modern information environment, posing a significant threat to democratic societies,” the study says.

So let’s look over a few Disinformation (DI) campaign activities, cover what the National Counterintelligence Security Center (NCSC) is telling us, and review what we can do to check stories before we share them.

DID YOU SEE THE NEWS?

Canadian solders introduced Covid-19 into Latvia. The new 5G cell phone service spreads Covid-19. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) labs created Covid-19.

Or how about this story: Biden, Pelosi, Kerry and Romney all have sons getting tens of millions of dollars in no-show jobs from Ukraine, and an FBI raid in Cleveland earlier this month is exposing all of this.

All of course are fake news and/or forgeries, and they are just a small portion of the wide variety of lies which malicious actors from Russia are spreading in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere as part of a broad-based Disinformation Campaign (DI), some aimed at many NATO-member nations. Readers of my blog site www.dicampaigns.com know that, for many months, I have chronicled DI activities stemming from Russia, China, Iran, and other places. Recent releases of information from both the NCSC and NATO verify the nations originating this Disinformation, serving as a warning for anyone interested in the truth and fair and free exchange of idea. Make no mistake: DI campaigns poison dialogue in the public square and are a severe threat to our democratic way of life.

Major media outlets such as NPR and the New York Times ran stories earlier this month (August 7-8) about NCSC Director William Evanina’s assessment about DI activities coming from Russia, China and Iran. The NCSC has made an assessment that China wants to see Donald Trump lose the November 3, 2020, election, and that Russia wants to see Joe Biden lose the election. You can find stories about the NCSC assessment in many locations, but perhaps a great call would be to visit their website and read Mr. Evanina’s statement yourself.  Here’s a link:

https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public

FAKE POLICE BRUTALITY VIDEOS VIEWED 20 MILLION TIMES

Long-time followers of my blog may have discerned that the malicious threat actors from these countries have differing objectives. One of Russia’s main objectives in DI campaigns is always to advance divisiveness in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, that’s just what happened. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that people operating social media accounts based in Pakistan and Botswana had posted supposedly “live” videos of policy brutality against Blacks in the U.S., and that these videos were viewed at least 20 million times before they were taken off social media platforms. In the violent aftermath, tens of thousands of people have been arrested, and at least 29 people have lost their lives.

We cannot estimate how much the 20 million plus views of fake videos contributed to the violence which accompanied the protests, but we know that 50+ cities in the U.S. had sufficient violence that led to arrests and/or injuries to participants and to police. This pattern of violent response to fake videos continued in August. This statement was buried in paragraph eight of an Associated Press story on the violent protests and looting in Chicago on August 8-9:

“Further ratcheting up the tensions in the city was a video circulating on Facebook that falsely claimed that Chicago police had shot and killed a 15-year-old boy. Posted at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the video shows upset residents confronting officers near the scene where police shot and wounded an adult suspect they said had fired at them that day. By Monday morning, the footage had been watched nearly 100,000 times.

Is there a cause-and-effect relationship between fake videos and how people act? Absolutely. The videos are created to capture viewers emotionally, because the malicious actors who conduct DI campaigns are depending on you to react. Their videos and pictures are created with the intent of drawing a reaction strong enough  to make you eager to share the content. That makes you what the Analytic Exchange Project calls an “unwitting actor” or an accomplice, helping spread false stories.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE

According to research, a recent survey of 25 countries, discovered that 86% citizens reported being exposed to fake news. Among them, nearly nine in ten reported having initially believed that the news was real. NATO offers these “top tips” to help citizens better spot and counter disinformation:

Top tips to spot disinformation and stop its spread

  1.  Check the source: Look at the source of the information – who has published it and shared it? A site that does not clearly state editorial responsibility is not trustworthy. On social media, check an account’s handle or username – if it has many random letters and numbers in succession, it could be a bot (an automated account). If you see an unverified account posting content hundreds of times a day, alarm bells should ring. Try using a free bot detector, and employ online tools, such as, which flag and rate misinformation sites. (One of my favorite sites is www.mediabiasfactcheck.com) It does daily updates on true and false news stories circulating on the Internet.
  2. Check the tone: Disinformation is often designed to trigger an emotional response. Be cautious of content that uses emotional language to elicit a strong reaction. Fear and anger are big drivers that allow disinformation to thrive.
  3. Check the story: Real news is usually covered by more than one source. If mainstream media are not picking up the story, there’s a good chance it can’t be confirmed. By running a search, you might find that independent fact-checkers have already debunked the story. Fact-checking sites, such as the above-mentioned mediabiasfactcheck.com and BBC Reality Check, allow you to check the accuracy of stories.
  4. Check the images: Does an image show what it claims? Platforms like Google, TinEye and Bing allow you to run a reverse image search to see where an image appears on the Internet and discover similar images. Tools and applications, such as SurfSafe and Serelay, can also help you determine whether an image has been doctored.
  5. Check your own biases: Research indicates that people are much less likely to identify disinformation if it aligns with their own beliefs or preferences. Be smart and think about whether you are sharing content because you know it’s true or just because you agree with it.

AT END: A plea

DI campaigns don’t stem from just one country. Disinformation doesn’t come out of just one political party or candidate. Foreign nations striving to interfere in our democratic processes (such as the November elections) would like nothing better than for you to turn a blind eye to what is ongoing on social media.

If you are concerned about democracy, if you believe it’s important for the public to have a legitimate exchange of free ideas, and if you spend any amount of time on social media, you owe it to your FRANs and others to practice the above-mentioned tips BEFORE you share any memes, videos, or stories. Don’t be an unwitting agent for some foreign-sponsored campaign to propagate disinformation to the public. Do the “five checks” before you share media content on the Internet.

Will you tear our nation apart even more, or will you help bring us back together? That choice is in your fingertips every time you communicate on social media.

Many thanks to WJKA-FM (Mark Zimmerman and Gabrielle Collins) and to Nicholas Phillips of WHK “The Advocate” for recent media interviews. The next post on this blog site will be in September 2020. Watch www.jkerezy.wordpress.com for a post there around Labor Day 2020

Link to the Analytic Exchange Project Report:

SOME SOURCES USED FOR THIS STORY

https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/177273.htm

Horwitz, Jeff https://www.wsj.com/articles/live-facebook-protest-videos-drew-millions-of-views-but-some-footage-was-years-old-11591118628, Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2020

https://apnews.com/a105a525e52c3447d506216048aa3c40?fbclid=IwAR25Nx6Dv193bV6xTQb9Rm2G2asiT3MuhNUthJ4spl2L7V0BxMT8b_g3kXc

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-iran-specialreport/special-report-how-iran-spreads-disinformation-around-the-world-idUSKCN1NZ1FT

https://www.aspi.org.au/report/covid-19-disinformation

Featured

Disinformation, BLM, and Social Media

Yuri Andropov, who directed the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security – KGB — from 1967-1982, said this: Disinformation works like cocaine. If you sniff it once or twice it may not change your life. If you used it every day though, it will make you into an addict – a different man.

Not even Andropov could have envisioned the impact of an unbelievably potent three-part combination punch to the collective American conscience , composed of:

  1. An extended, government-mandated lockdown and quarantine, resulting in
  2. Greater-than-ever public time and attention devoted to information and especially to disinformation on social media, combined with
  3. The murder of an unarmed African American by a police officer in a major U.S. city, all captured on video.

Each part synergistically added to the others, creating a perfect storm in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25. A presidential election year tosses an additional caustic element in the mix. What follows here is a brief analysis of how it happened, concluding with an overview of some ongoing activities in the areas of Disinformation (DI) campaigns and Information Operations (IO).

Past posts on this blog site, going back to February, have cited the “infodemic” nature of Covid-19 and the multiple layers of disinformation and deceit associated with the epidemic. The World Health Organization, the International Fact Checking Network, First Draft News, the Shorenstein Center on Public Policy at Harvard University, and – eventually – mainstream news media outlets all reacted to the flood of disinformation taking place surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Some, such as First Draft News, developed regular briefings and seminars aimed at journalists attempting to explain, and debunk, some of the disinformation surrounding Covid-19. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms more aggressively took down disinformation posts, especially those related to the Coronavirus.

A portion of the problem is us. Being in quarantine, we all spent significantly more time on social media. Tech Crunch reported that WhatsApp and Instagram both saw a 40 percent increase in usage, and Facebook reported a 37 percent increase in usage, as a result of Covid-19[1]. Twitter reported an uptick of 24 percent in daily users in the early period of the Coronvirus crisis, according to Engaget.com.[2]

Another huge jumped happened in the number of us viewing online videos especially among those watching videos on YouTube. WordStream reports that YouTube accounts for more than two-thirds of video consumption among millennials. YouTube is also the second most-used search engine, and according to Cisco, online videos now account for 79% of all online traffic.[3] That’s a key: Especially among millennials, news equates to watching a video on their cell phones about the story on YouTube or some social media platform. Increasing amounts of time, now devoted daily, to social media-generated stories and videos has addicted some of us, changed us, and is changing our society in ways we have yet to understand. Additionally, the Coronvirus pandemic has had a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans in terms of health and economics. This is the “frame of reference” or starting point from which an objective researcher or writer would have to accept before beginning to analyze how elements of society reacted to what happened on May 25, 2020.

George Floyd’s murder sets DI campaigns, social media on fire

There is an abundance of supporting evidence. In a November 2018 paper titled Acting the Part: Examining Information Operations Within #BlackLivesMatter Discourse, researchers Ahmer Arif, Leo Steward and Kate Starbird conducted an analysis of known social media account emanating from the Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg, Russia (abbreviated RU-IRA), and their 2016 Twitter tweets and retweets.[4] Here is a link to the entire paper.

Below is what the researchers discovered (If color is in light red, taken verbatim from the research):

  1. Modeling the ‘anti-Police’ #BlackLivesMatter protestor: Each RU-IRA account that we examined in the left-leaning cluster connected their African-American identity to being a #BlackLivesMatter activist by tweeting extensively about police officers shooting unarmed African American men and women … These tweets frequently linked to stories from established media sources such as Fox News and the New York Times, but also alternative media sources, including conspiracy theory and RU-IRA affiliated sites….
  2. Nurturing Division: Enacting Caricatures of Political Partisan Accounts – Our findings show RU-IRA agents utilizing Twitter and other online platforms to infiltrate politically active online communities. Rather than transgressing community norms, these accounts undertook efforts to connect to the cultural narratives, stereotypes, and political positions of their imagined audiences.
  3. Taking a perspective based on the theory of structuration [footnote], the impact of these accounts cannot be considered in a simple cause and effect type model, but instead should be examined as a relationship of mutual shaping or resonance between the affordances of the online environment, the social structures and behaviors of the online crowd, and the improvised performances of agents that seek to leverage that crowd for political gain.
  4. Importantly, this activity did not limit itself to a single “side” of the online conversation. Instead, it opportunistically infiltrated both the politically left-leaning pro-#BlackLivesMatter community and the right-leaning anti-#BlackLivesMatter community. Though the tone of content shared varied across different accounts, in general these accounts took part in creating and/or amplifying divisive messages from their respective political camps. In some cases (e.g. @BleepThePolice), the account names and content shared reflected some of the most highly-charged and morally-questionable content (Emphasis added.) Together with the high-level dynamics revealed in the network graph (illustration), this observation suggests that RU-IRA operated-accounts were enacting harsh caricatures of political partisans that may have functioned both to pull like-minded accounts closer and to push accounts from the other “side” even further away. (Emphasis added.)
  5. Though we cannot quantify the impact of these strategies, our findings do support theories developed in the intelligence field that suggest one goal of specifically Russian (dis)information operations is to “sow division” within a target society [footnotes].

Here is a figure from the researchers’ findings. All the Twitter accounts listed here originated from the Internet Research Agency in Russia. 


The three researchers concluded that Russian accounts, disguising themselves as U.S. based, presented themselves as “authentic” voices on both sides of a polarized online discourse, by presenting both pro- and anti-BlackLivesMatter agendas. They also concluded that these inauthentic accounts converged to undermine trust in information intermediaries like ‘the mainstream media’

Traveling further down the evidence trail

“Acting the Part…” was published 19 months ago. It took years of research and the efforts of FBI investigators with the Mueller Report to track down inauthentic social media accounts and to ascertain the full extent of Russia’s disinformation activities. Rather than restating ground here, interested persons can refer back to a video I produced in Fall 2019 summarizing just one dimension of this DI campaign, which fermented divisiveness all over the U.S. in 2016. Here is a link:

As of June 2020, here are additional facts which we should consider:

  1. Knowing that the U.S. and other nations were wise to its DI methods, Russia’s Yevgeny Prigozhin (perhaps the world’s No. 1 instigator of DI campaigns) changed strategy and is now “subcontracting” DI efforts by paying nationals in the country being targeted to do the social media work. A study from Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, titled “Evidence of Russia-linked influence operations in Africa,”[5] chronicled how this was being done in nations in Africa. A link to the document is just below. Key findings include (again, verbatim is in light red):
  • In addition to well-known social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the actors leveraged public WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
  • The operation used social media engagement tactics designed to develop a close relationship with the audience, including Facebook Live videos, Google Forms for feedback, and a contest.
  • The operation shared tactical similarities to Internet Research Agency activities; the operatives created several associated news sites (in one case staffed by reporters who appear to have spent time in Russia) as well as Facebook Pages that produced social-first content (memes, live videos).
  • 2. The Wall Street Journal reported in early June that during the late May period after Floyd’s murder, accounts originating in Pakistan and Botswana were posting “Facebook Live” videos that were purported to be of “real time” incidents of police violence in the United States.[6] Some of these videos were viewed by 20 million or more people before Facebook removed the accounts from its service.
  • 3. Researchers at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have been tracking Information Operations (DI Campaigns) stemming from the People’s Republic of China. A recent report from the ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Center, titled Retweeting through the great firewall: A persistent and undeterred threat actor [7] Finds that the Chinese Communist Party is engaging in ongoing DI campaigns about the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Covid-19,and other matters. Of special interest is the ongoing research of the ASPI’s Elise Thomas. She is identifying individual Twitter accounts emanating from China from this DI effort, and pointing out how these accounts have recently changed their narrative and are now disseminating blasts of information daily in support of Black Lives Matter and in opposition to police in the U.S. (Here is a link to the research).

ADD IT UP: Research from multiple respected universities and institutes and prominent governmental leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties concur that Russian DI strategy is fueling dissention and ferment for and against Black Lives Matter. Researchers in Australia who are carefully studying social media activity emanating from China add that the Chinese Communist Party is also involved. Forces from these hostile foreign powers are dividing and weakening the United States by actively running DI campaigns targeting U.S. citizens in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

“Threat actors” is the term which the Department of Homeland Security’s Analyst Exchange Program uses to describe DI campaigns which co-opt circumstances with evil intent. Those threat actors have helped to fuel and incite violence within a good and noble effort, the just cause for racial equality.

Andropov was more right than he knew. But this time it is an entire country which seems to becoming addicted to social media and is falling sway to DI, disinformation.

RECENT DISINFORMATION DEVELOPMENTS

Kudos to Facebook on Friday for deciding to take additional measures against hate speech in advance of the November 2020 U.S. elections. For years now, FB has uncovered and removed “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” from its platforms. FB says in its June 26, 2020, release that “now we identify almost 90% of the hate speech we remove before anyone even reports it to us.” Facebook is striving mightily to balance free speech rights without becoming arbitrary and capricious. See for yourself. Here’s a link to its June 26 announcement: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/06/meeting-unique-elections-challenges/

Kudos also to Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed senior reporter with focus on disinfo and online investigations, who (among her other reporting duties) also devotes significant time and energy to outing inauthentic posts on social media.

Well worth your $$$: Thomas Rid and Nina Jankowicz have both written books about Russia and Disinformation. Rid’s “Active Measures” and Jankowicz’s “How to Lose the Information War” are must reads for those studying Russia in 2020.

Finally – Advice to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: Last time we checked, there is more than one person running for the office of President of the U.S. in 2020. If you want to provide a beneficial service to Twitter users and also help avoid the risk of losing Section 230 protections under the Communications Decency Act, why not assign fact checkers to ALL candidates for President? Take it even a step further, and ask universities specializing in public policy to assign a person from their research staffs to do the fact checking. That’s the smarter, less divisive way to proceed.  

I will be engaged in academic research for the next several weeks, and will most likely not be making additional posts to this spot until late August or early September 2020. I do respond to emails with requests for fall speaking engagements at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu


[1] Perez, Sarah  https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/26/report-whatsapp-has-seen-a-40-increase-in-usage-due-to-covid-19-pandemic/

[2] Cooper, Daniel https://www.engadget.com/twitter-q1-2020-112603005.html

[3] Bond, Conor https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2020/02/27/youtube-statistics

[4] Published in Proceedings of the ACM ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 20, November 2018.

[5] Grossman, Shelby; Bush, Daniel; and DiResta, Renée, Evidence of Russia-linked influence operations in Africa. November 2019

[6] Horwitz, Jeff https://www.wsj.com/articles/live-facebook-protest-videos-drew-millions-of-views-but-some-footage-was-years-old-11591118628, Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2020

[7] Wallis, Jake; Uren, Tom; Thomas, Elise; Zhang, Albert; Hoffman, Samantha; Li, Lin; Pascoe, Alex: and Cave, Danielle,  ASPI Policy Brief Report No. 33/2020


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Staying safe, ensuring journalists cover the facts

PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM AN INTERNET ATTACK

Tens of millions of Americans are now working remotely from their homes. Upwards of 100 million more American school children and young adults are studying in K-12 or college programs from their homes as well. With no restaurants, theaters or shows to attend, we’re watching streaming videos or playing video games in record numbers. We’re also using cell phones, tablets, and laptop computers at unprecedented levels.

Julia Alexander, who writes for The Verge, cited proof of this in a column on March 27. With the advent of social distancing:

  • Binge watch in March is up 65 percent compared to the prior month on HBO
  • Movie watching on HBO is up 70 percent
  • Netflix has seen a surge in streams
  • Disney Plus reports a massive subscription sign-up
  • Twitch has seen a 31 percent growth in viewership
  • YouTube Gaming has seen a 15 percent increase

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are being stretched thin due to the burgeoning growth. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says mobile WiFi calling is up 100 percent, and mobile data is up 40 percent. In some countries, providers have cut back from HD to standard definition videos. YouTube announced in March that for one month it would automatically degrade videos down to standard definition around the world. Amazon is also taking steps to reduce bit rate streams in countries across the globe.

All of this is happening away from offices, schools and colleges/universities – places which provide firewalls and other forms of security to protect their users. As a result, Americans are more vulnerable than ever to cyberattacks. In this environment, it is up to us to be the first line of defense against cybercriminals, scammers, and phishing attackers.

“Cybercriminals and other hackers are always to looking for any opportunity to gain an advantage.  Be on guard against hackers who are using the confusion around working changes caused by COVID-19,” wrote David Mastny, Director of IT Security at Cuyahoga Community College, in an e-mail to college employees on April 3. “Many hackers favor social engineering attacks like phishing that use email to get you to open an attachment, click a link, or take some other action.”

Mastny and many other IT professionals advocate taking a HOVER TO DISCOVER approach any time you see a questionable message. You do this by “hovering” the mouse cursor over a link BEFORE clicking to see where it leads without actually going to the site.  If it looks weird or the site is not related to the sender, it is probably malicious.  Hovering looks like this:hover to discover

After hovering, if the site the message is sending you to looks wrong, you should report it as a phishing attack to your employer or school.

If you are using a mobile device, with software such as the free MICROSOFT OUTLOOK app, you can LONG PRESS on the link by pressing for several seconds and will see the same information as hovering. Long

Press looks like this:

LONG PRESS

Mastny and all IT security professionals are rushing to provide new education and training to their employees. If you receive an update on IT security from your workplace, pay attention to it. The information might prevent you from a cyberattack.

ONE MORE TIP – If your employer or school offers a virtual private network (called VPN, VMI or VDI most frequently) use it. Applications running in a VPN have the functionality, security and management of the private network. That way you have some additional defense against phishers and scammers.

OVERWHELMED

Snopes, Facebook, Twitter, and others are all “taking hits” in the fight to defeat Coronavirus.

Snopes began in 1994 as an online website to debunk urban legends, long before the advent of social media. Accompanying the outbreak of the global Coronavirus pandemic has been an epidemic almost as bad – Disinformation (DI) and organized campaigns aimed at misinforming the public about origins of Covid-19, treatments, and even the disease’s basic symptoms.

The DI campaigns are overwhelming the fact checkers, and also leaving the social media platforms hard-pressed to take corrective action. How bad is it? The World Health Organization stepped up its regular briefings and communications efforts about Covid-19 and cited reports about the Coronavirus as becoming a news “infodemic” on February 3. In the two months since then, hundreds of different conspiracy theories and outright DI campaigns are spreading virally via the Internet.

Here is a quick review of the four categories of fakes in the online world:

  1. HOAX – People who simply enjoy fooling others with fake reports. Numerous celebrities have all “died falling off a cliff while hiking in New Zealand” in years past. A prankster in Georgia takes credit for these stories. He simply enjoys showing the world how gullible the news media is.
  2. SATIRE – The Onion and The Babylon Bee are two of the biggest practitioners of satirical stories on the web. This is the internet version the “Weekend News Update” first introduced on the television show “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s. One hundred percent of the stories on these sites are made up and designed to elicit a laugh (and to get you to visit their web sites so they can sell more advertising.)
  3. PROFITEERS – This is more serious, at least for those putting time and effort into the process. Profiteers can take on two forms, one more insidious than the other
    • Clicks – the actors or companies involved are making money simply by getting you to view their false content. There were thousands of fake news stories planted by “official” sounding websites in the 2016 election campaign, for example. Some of them came from young men called “content farmers” from the nation of Macedonia, who learned that they could make a lot of money from advertising revenue generated from hits on their fake stories. They had no interest in the outcome of the election, but only how to make money on gullible people reading their stories.
    • Sales – the actors or companies involved is trying to sell “cures” or products, usually scams, on the Internet. Hundreds of “cures” for Covid-19 are available on various websites, all aimed at getting into your wallet or (even worse) stealing your credit card number.
  4. MALICIOUS CONTENT – The worst kind of fakes are intentionally and repeatedly putting out false information as part of a planned effort to subvert the truth, reduce faith in democracy and the democratic process, and/or to advance their own agendas. Russia, China, and Iran are all the leading national practitioners of these DI campaigns. Here’s just one example: Last year the New York Times chronicled Russia’s DI campaign to discredit and scare the public over the adoption of 5G WiFi systems. Tragically, its working (see below).

Fake news and DI has spread even faster than the Coronavirus. Snopes has just 10 employees. It has seen 36 million unique visitors to its website in the last 30 days, a 50 percent rise in traffic. It has debunked hundreds of false stories and is checking dozens more every day. The Coronavirus is “the deadliest information crisis we might every possibly have,” says Vinny Green, Snopes’ chief operating officer. Snopes is now adding five more employees to avoid becoming overwhelmed by its visitors.

Social media platforms are also increasing their security personnel, relying more on algorithms to block or take down “inappropriate” content, and — upon investigation — removing malicious content from their services. Facebook Twitter, and other platforms are all reporting rises in the number of accounts they are removing. If you are curious, at the bottom of this column you can see links to websites where Twitter and Facebook report their removal of inauthentic content from their platforms.

What’s truly tragic is that, in some countries and in some circumstances, the DI campaigners are winning. For example, three times in recent weeks citizens in Great Britain have set 5G WiFi cell towers ON FIRE because of unfounded fears that there is a connection between 5G service and Coronavirus! Another story in The Verge (linked below) has the details.

There has been a Russian-led DI campaign for some time now aimed at convincing people in democratic nations that 5G service is harmful. In the U.K., one local radio station even gave a (alleged) “nurse” a 20-minute interview during which she cited phony evidence about the harms of 5G WiFi.

That would never happen in the U.S.  Or has it already happened?  Citing a 2017 U.S. Director of National Intelligence Report, the Times says that videos posted from the Russia news-propaganda site Russia Today have 1 million views per day.

5g coronavirus

JOURNALISTS: FIRST DRAFT STEPS UP

At the beginning of March, I was fortunate to attend a Live Simulation seminar at Ohio University, presented by the organization First Draft. For the past five years, First Draft has been on the front lines of communication and education of journalists about the dangers of DI and DI campaigns.

In response to the explosion of DI over the Coronavirus, First Draft has developed a menu of resources for reporters, editors, news directors, and other journalists. It includes:

  • Newsgathering and verification tools
  • Ethics and responsible reporting guidance
  • A database of debunks of mis- and disinformation
  • Data and information sources
  • A searchable reading list
  • FAQs that journalists may have
  • Links to sign up for video calls on reporting coronavirus

Of special note is the database, which collates output from more than 70 organizations and is sourced from both Google’s Fact Check Explorer and Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). The IFCN was launched in 2015 as a collaboration of global fact checking all over the world. It has collectively published more than 800 fact checks about coronavirus in the first seven weeks of the outbreak and is continuing to publish regular updates on coronavirus misinformation.

First Draft has developed a terrific acrostic and a visual to remind journalists and all of us about disinformation – don’t be SHEEP.  In this acrostic, the word stands for Source, History, Evidence, Emotions and Pictures. See the visual below.

sheep

Kudos to First Draft, and thank you to its many supporters and to the media outlets who rely upon its resources during this crisis. DON’T BE A SHEEP.

(NOTE: The next part of “China vs. the Truth” will appear later in April. Due to the rising number of phishing attacks and disinformation, I thought it best to provide information for a public service and for advice to journalists and media outlets with this column.)

Permission is granted to reuse all or any portion of this content. Connect with the author at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu or via Facebook or Twitter.

MORE LINKS TO SOURCES

https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/4/21207927/5g-towers-burning-uk-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-link

https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-snopes-misinformation-fact-checking-overwhelmed-deadly-consequences-2020-3

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/twitter-to-remove-harmful-fake-news-about-coronavirus

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CHINA vs. THE TRUTH

PART ONE: A brief analysis of the People’s Republic of China’s Three Warfares, and how it conducts disinformation (DI) campaigns and media warfare

Lost amid endless speculation in social media about the outbreak of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a simple reality: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which runs the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in Year 17 of its San Zhan, or “Three Warfares” strategy to gain long-term dominance in the world. China’s leadership has self identified public opinion and media warfare (its terms) as a key activities in the second of these three warfare areas. Those three areas are:

  1. Legal
  2. Public Opinion
  3. Psychological
A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to be tested for the CCP virus in Wuhan, China
on May 15, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images) This appears in The Epoch Times, Dec. 2, 2020

A critical component of the second area, public opinion, is Disinformation (DI). The PRC employs DI campaigns extensively in an effort, sometimes successful, to shape and mold public opinion across the globe in its favor. The truth is irrelevant in China. Social media is used as both a tool to keep the populace misinformed, to suppress opposition, and to shape internal opinion in a way deemed most beneficial to the CCP. Externally, the PRC employs a vast army of millions of social media campaigners and propagandists, some disguised as journalists working abroad, to tell its story.

Media in the U.S. and elsewhere has caught on to some aspects of this. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of San Diego concluded that the CCP puts out nearly 450 million fake social media posts a year.[1] Much to its credit, the New York Times has at times aggressively covered Chinese DI campaigns. The media outlet reported on this in August and September 2019 when Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube removed Chinese social media accounts that were linked to China, including taking action to eliminate 1,000 and suspend 200,000 more Twitter accounts. Ironically, China prohibits Twitter in its country but makes extensive use of Twitter in DI campaigns aimed at other countries and especially at Chinese living abroad. In Beijing alone, China has two million people working on propaganda and DI campaigns. “The end goal is to control the conversation,” Matt Schrader, a China analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, told the Times reporters.[2]

This is the first in a multi-part series about China and DI campaigns. Today’s portion provides important background and covers some of China’s practices prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. The next part will deal exclusively with the Coronavirus and how the CCP has responded to this crisis, lied about aspects of it, and attempted to propagandize it into pro-Chinese and anti-Western themes.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Stefan Halper is a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, where he was once Director of American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies. There he lectured on latter 20th Century US foreign policy, China, and contemporary international security issues. Halper holds doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. He is a Life Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Halper has served four American presidents in the White House and Department of State.[3]

More recently, Halper became entangled in the FBI’s “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” scandal, allegedly helping conduct government surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016. While noteworthy, Halper’s involvement in these activities took place three years AFTER he had prepared and submitted a 559-page report, titled China: The Three Warfares for the Office of Net Assessment. 

What is the Office of Net Assessment? Created in the early 1970s, it is an independent organization within the Department of Defense and is charged with identifying emerging or future threats and opportunities for the United States.[4] Prior to 2013, Halper had produced two similar analyses for the Office of Net Assessment; The Iraq War in 2005 and The Afghan End Game in 2010.

A comprehensive study of China: The Three Warfares would turn anyone into an expert on China’s government, military and diplomacy. This work has six project advisors, three of them being retired U.S. Navy admirals. There are 11 Contributors, all field experts, whose papers and interviews are part of the overall project. There are about 850 footnotes to the main report, dozens of primary sources, and hundreds of open source materials and secondary sources (news reports, briefs) cited as well.

Here’s just one example: Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in India’s navy. One of the contributors to China: Three Warfares, Bhaskar wrote a paper appearing within the report titled “China’s Three Warfares Concept Related to India and the Indian Ocean Region.” In it, Bhaskar writes, “There is one suggestion that the Chinese have dug deep into their own historical records of military strategy, going back to Sun Tzu ( c. 540 BC) who laid great emphasis on the imperative of ‘winning without engaging in War.’”[5] Today Bhaskar is the director of Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based independent think tank.

Graphic depicting Century of Humiliation. Source: Sutori.com

Halper and his collaborators provide an important historical context behind China: Three Warfares. The report covers the Century of Humiliation, or the period in China’s history when Western powers, Russia and Japan all extracted concessions from an ever-weaker Chinese government. This began in the 19th Century, and continued into the 20th Century when China suffered greatly at the hands of Imperial Japan. Vestiges of this period exert a strong influence on the thinking of China’s leaders, who are concerned about cultural identity despite their nation’s burgeoning manufacturing base and economy. “Sweeping Western influence is not a new problem,” reads a 2011 opinion article in Xinhuanet, the official news agency of the PRC. “As an importer of cultural products, ideas and technologies since the 19th Century, China has every reason to worry about its cultural identity.”[6]

In more recent times, China believed that the United States and (to a lesser extent) NATO used propaganda and public opinion strategies to obtain widespread support for the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, for removing Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia in the late 1990s, and then in the second Persian Gulf War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. “Indeed, the ability of coalition forces to undermine popular support for the (removal of the)Milosevic and Saddam Hussein regimes, influence global views, and preserve domestic support are seen by the PRC as key factors in the outcome of each conflict,” writes Dean Cheng, Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.[7]

HOW THREE WARFARES WORKS

In his project, Halper traces the origins of San Zhan and the Three Warfares (TW) back to 2003, when the CCP published them as “political work regulations” for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although the individual(s) in China who developed the strategy are not identified, writings about it clearly identify TW as asymmetrical and warlike in practice. Its purpose is to change the mindset of China’s political and military leaders away from conventional warfare, expanding areas of conflict to the political realm of opposing nations, to the manipulation of public opinion, and to legal systems as well.

One key aspect of this is a strong desire on the part of the PRC to improve its projection of soft power. Joseph Nye coined this term, defining it as like-minded cultural, ideological and institutional policies, in the Clinton administration.[8] Nye believed that soft power could help a nation, the U.S., shape the world. “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.” He argued, “if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.” 

Cheng posits that China has been striving assiduously to counter an American advantage in global access and coverage. For example, in one article China’s propaganda guidelines call for it to seek news dominance (xinwen quan) and information dominance (xinxi quan) on a path resulting in psychological dominance (xinli quan).[9] To this end, in September 2011 the Chinese Foreign Ministry began offering press briefings daily, supplanting the old twice-a-week briefing frequency. China created a 24-hour English language global news service (CNC World English Channel), and expanded its state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) to operate on a more global level.[10]

China has also poured tremendous resources into social media and the internet as well (more about this in Part Two). Additionally, the development and expansion of Confucius Institutes, which have a purpose of promoting Chinese language training and also focus on providing information about China’ education, culture, economy and society, is another strategic effort aimed at soft power. There are more than 530 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents as of 2019.

Within the PLA, there are four stated goals in the area of media warfare:

  1. Preserve friendly morale
  2. Generate public support at home and abroad
  3. Weaken an enemy’s will to fight
  4. Alter an enemy’s situational assessment.[11]

To accomplish these, Chinese strategists and tacticians follow “Four Pillars of Media Warfare.” Planners in the PLA pursue these four points:

  1. Top-down guidance: Media warfare is consistent with the larger national strategy, as outline by the senior leaders of the PRC and the CCP. Tacticians follow high-level guidance on both content and timing of any news.
  2. Pre-emption: The first to broadcast or release news on social media gains the advantage by dominating the message and better framing the debate, which then defines the parameters of subsequent coverage.
  3. Flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions: Operations remain flexible and adjustable given different political and military circumstances.
  4. “All available” resources: China combines peacetime and military operations to pursue civilian-military integration and local unity to leverage both its commercial and civilian assets (news organizations, broadcasting facilities, internet users) in a comprehensive and systematic campaign.[12]

Peter Mattis, who worked as an international affairs analyst for the U.S. and is now a Fellow in the China Program at the Jamestown Foundation, details the steps which China’s government and its PLA take in a crisis with respect to the U.S. They are:[13]

  1. Establish China’s version of the incident: Beijing will issue statements at or near the beginning of each crisis in order to establish a Chinese position on what happened.
  2. Statement of principles for resolution of an incident: Chinese officials will point to these at the start of any negotiations as setting parameters for discussions to follow. These are considered minimally-acceptable points which meet Beijing’s commitments to the Chinese public. This incorporates the TW concept, and are described for both foreign and domestic audiences.
  3. Shut down any unofficial but normal information channels: U.S. officials often complain that their Chinese counterparts will refuse any communication, including personal channels, once a crisis begins. That is because PRC leadership is establishing information control and dominance of the media and (if possible) social media to as to continuously frame and shape the ensuing debate.
  4. Emphasize Beijing’s commitment to the U.S.-China relationship: This is a version of the “blame game” which PRC will play by making the crisis a testing point of U.S. goodwill and future intentions towards China. Usually in the onset, Beijing will firmly express its own commitment to bilateral relations, implying that Washington does not take the relationship as seriously as does China. [14]

EXAMPLE: HONG KONG PROTESTS

The Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, representatives of the FBI and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, the MITRE Corp, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others have written an Analytic Exchange Program White Paper titled Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns. It was published in October 2019. [Email me at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu, and I’d be glad to share a copy with you.] A sentence of the executive summary reads,“….disinformation campaigns should be viewed as a whole-of-society problem requiring action by government stakeholders, commercial entities, media organizations, and other segments of a civil society.”[15] Another section says the following:

A targeted disinformation campaign … is more insidious than simply telling lies on the internet. One untrue meme or contrived story may be a single thread in a broader operation seeking to influence a target population through methods that violate democratic values, societal norms, and in some jurisdictions, the law.

A disinformation campaign occurs when a person, group of people, or entity (a “threat actor”) coordinate to distribute false or misleading information while concealing the true objectives of the campaign. The objectives of disinformation campaigns can be broad (e.g., sowing discord in a population) or targeted (e.g. propagating a counternarrative to domestic protests) and may employ all information types (disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, propaganda, and true information). The target of a disinformation campaign is the person or group the threat actor aims to influence in order to achieve the campaign’s objectives.

In the White Paper, AEP chronicled the PRC disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the protestors and the larger pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019 as one of its two examples of disinformation campaigns. Citing The Guardian(UK) and the Washington Post, AEP pointed out how social media platforms removed or suspended more than 200,000 fraudulent accounts circulating false information.[16]

The New York Times reported that China’s strategy was to create an alternative version of events which it claimed would only lead to bloodshed and violence. China asserted that last year’s protests were not supported by Hong Kong residents and provoked by foreign agents. China’s goal is to undermine sympathy for the seven million residents of Hong Kong and for the protesters’ demands for greater freedoms. This stems from a Chinese government-written bill presented in spring 2019 that would have allowed residents accused of crimes to be sent for trial  to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty, mainly mainland China.[17]

As the protests continued throughout the summer of 2019, China ramped up a two-pronged DI campaigned aimed at internal and external audiences. The AEP White Paper pointed out that the “threat actor” originating this disinformation campaign was the Chinese government, and that the campaign established fake Facebook and Twitter profiles as Americans living in Nevada, Ohio and Texas. Additionally, the Chinese used their state-run media (China Daily, Xinhua News, CGTN) to place paid advertisements on Twitter and Facebook. The main purpose of the campaign was to discredit the pro-democracy movement. The campaign pushed narratives praising the police, and depicting the Hong Kong protestors as terrorists and cockroaches.[18]

As the protests escalated, police tactics turned more violent and China intensified an already-aggressive DI campaign aimed at both internal and external audiences. The internal communication has been especially vile and heinous. Here’s an example: Weibo, a Chinese-controlled social media service similar to Twitter, has posts calling for violent action against the protestors.

“Beating them to a pulp is not enough,”one person said about protesters on Tuesday, echoing an increasingly common sentiment on Weibo. “They must be beaten
to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up.”[19]

AEP’s White Paper cites the extensive use of bots which DI campaigners employ to greatly amplify their messages. A “bot” is a computer algorithm designed to execute online tasks autonomously and repetitively, simulating the behavior of human beings in social networks and interacting with social media users by sharing information and messages. According to one researcher, in 2017 there were 23 million bots on Twitter, 140 million bots on Facebook and 27 million bots on Instagram. About 5 to 8 percent of all social media accounts are NOT authentic but instead are bots. [20]

According to AEP, China’s government made extensive use of bots to repost and spread false narratives against the Hong Kong protestors.  It classifies “threat actors” as those who are originating the campaigns. If you hit “Share” or “Retweet” a fake story, AEP classifies you as an “Unwitting Agent” of a disinformation effort.[21]

Like their counterparts in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere, the Chinese propagandists and DI campaigners are adept at selecting words, pictures, and phrases designed to evoke emotions and to get you – and others – to “Share” their posts. Thus you might unknowingly help their efforts.

Governments, businesses small and large, and media conglomerates have all become intertwined economically with the PRC over the past 20 years. At the same time, China has greatly expanded its propaganda and DI campaign activity. Only after comprehending Three Warfares, San Zhan, and its ramifications can one reach logical conclusions with respect to how PRC has approached the Covid-19 outbreak. Details are coming in Part Two.

SOURCES

[1] Drew, Kevin “Social Media With Chinese Characteristics,” US News & World Report, June 2016, retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-06-01/china-fakes-nearly-450-million-social-media-posts-research-shows

[2] Zhong, Raymond; Myers, Steven; and Wu, Jin “How China Unleashed Twitter Trolls to Discredit Hong Kong’s Protesters,” September 2019, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/09/18/world/asia/hk-twitter.html?searchResultPosition=6

[3]Halper, Stefan “China: The Three Warfares,” May 2013, Office of Net Assessment, retrieved from https://cryptome.org/2014/06/prc-three-wars.pdf

[4] Gady, Franz-Stefan “The Future of Net Assessment at the Pentagon,” June 2015, The Diplomat, retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-future-of-net-assessment-at-the-pentagon/

[5] Halper, op. cit., page 476

[6] Xinhuanet, “China’s Cultural Security Lies in Openness and Exchanges,” October 2011, retrieved from http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2011-10/27/content_23739682.html

[7] Cheng, Dean, “Winning Without Fighting: China’s Public Opinion Warfare and the Need for a Robust American Response,” p. 3, November 2012, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, p. 3, retrieved from http://report.heritage.org/bg2745

[8]  Li, Eric “The Rise and Fall of Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, August 2018, Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/20/the-rise-and-fall-of-soft-power/

[9] Cheng, op. cit., p. 7

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, p. 4

[12] Ibid

[13] Mattis, Peter. ‘Out with the New, In with the Old: Interpreting China’s “New Type of International Relations”’. Jamestown Foundation, China Brief. Volume 13, Issue 9. April 25, 2013

[14] Ibid

[15] Analytic Exchange Program, Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaign, October 2019, p. 2

[16] Ibid, p. 19

[17] Myers, Steven Lee and Mozur, Paul, “China is waging a disinformation war against Hong Kong protesters,” New York Times, August 18, 2019, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/13/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-china.html

[18] AEP, op. cit., pages 19-20

[19] Ibid

[20] Center for Information Technology and Society, “How is Fake News Spread? Bots, People like You, Trolls and Microtargeting,” U.C. Santa Barbara, retrieved from https://www.cits.ucsb.edu/fake-news/spread

[21] AEP, op. cit., page 21

China vs. the Truth, Part II

Media Warfare & the Coronavirus

There will be much cause for happiness next month when China ushers in the Year of the Ox at its Spring Festival/New Year celebration. China reported a record trade surplus of US $75 billion in November, fueled by a 21 percent surge in exports compared with the same period last year.[1] Exports to the United States alone jumped 46 percent. Overall manufacturing was up 7 percent in November 2020 compared to 12 months ago. Best of all, from its perspective, China has so far successfully evaded responsibility for the outbreak of Covid-19 and the resulting global pandemic.

In Part I of this blog series, I explained the Three Warfares strategy which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the People’s Republic of China began advancing in 2003.[2] The year 2021 is year 18 of this strategy. If you haven’t read or listened to Part I, please take about 10 minutes to do so prior to continuing. It is essential, as it helps explain the mindset of President Xi Jinping – General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission — and other top CCP leaders as they first reacted to news from Wuhan about the outbreak of the Coronavirus in December 2019. (https://disinformationcampaigns.com/2020/12/29/china-vs-the-truth-2/)

Part II of the blog post seeks to explore a much more important question, inviting you to think deeply about what the CCP’s leaders have carried out with respect to 2020. Suppose you are on the Standing Committee of the CCP’s Politburo, the nine-member group which runs the CCP and therefore the country. How do you present a story or a series of stories about Covid-19 in a way most favorable to your nation and most harmful to your adversaries?

Recognize that a warfare mindset is needed when examining the CCP’s reaction to, then exploitation of, Covid-19 for national advantage. Here is just one dimension: In the U.S. and most Western nations, medical authorities and scientists took a lead in responding to the pandemic. In China on January 20 – three full weeks after Chinese medical personnel had sounded alarms about Covid-19, — President Xi in a Politboro meeting put China on a “war power” response. Wuhan and all major Chinese cities were placed in quarantine. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took command over the nation’s disease control efforts.[3]

Long-time journalist Richard McGregor, now a senior fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, wrote this about the CCP’s actions:

“Without the need for any messy, democratic debate about civil rights or so forth, the government was able, virtually overnight, to lock down more than 700 million people in residential detention. It was also able to seal provincial, city, county, and village borders; shut factories while commandeering the entire output of some businesses to supply emergency medical equipment; mobilise military and para-military units; build pop-up hospitals; mandate testing of tens of millions of citizens; and track the movements of residents through mobile phone apps.[4]

The CCP-directed militarization of Covid-19 response meant China focused internally and externally on eliminating the Coronavirus as a threat to its key strategic narrative, to be the world’s leading world power by 2050.[5] This was perhaps best illustrated on what became the globe’s largest conference call on February 23, when 170,000 CCP, military and civilian leaders in China listened in on a speech from President Xi. “The effectiveness of the prevention and  control work has once again showed the significant advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” he said.[6] 

As it gained control of the Coronavirus narrative and actions inside China, what did the CCP do next? It lied, and it used every communications and propaganda tool at its disposal to advance its lies. It spread false information about Covid-19’s origins. It attacked other nations and with specificity assailed the U.S. for questioning China’s pandemic reaction. Next, the CCP claimed other nations had “weak” responses to the pandemic. Finally, concocted a false story for the world, one in which China was a nation leading the global recovery from Covid-19 rather than one covering up and hiding many crucial details about the Coronavirus. (More about this will be chronicled in Part III.)

Under its long-term strategy, the CCP’s Media Warfare activities have coalesced around three major themes. Disinformation (DI) campaigns are inherent in the advancement of all three. They are:

  • Claiming that the Coronavirus originated in places other than China, while obscuring and covering up Covid-19’s true place of origination, Wuhan.
  • Criticizing other countries’ response to the Coronavirus, especially that of the U.S.
  • Positioning itself as a global leader against the virus.

The CCP’s overall objective has been to gain news dominance (Xinwen Quan) of the Covid-19 story. It hasn’t been successful, but not due to a lack of effort. In one arena  – social media – researchers have discovered that the CCP puts out 450 million fake social media accounts each year. More than 2 million people in Beijing alone work for the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). In 2014, Xi Jinping created the CAC to censor the internet in China, to manage internal and external propaganda, and to carry out all other aspects of the CCP’s digital communications policies. The CAC is the most powerful communications organization on planet earth, and it exhibited its vast power in 2020.

  • CENSORSHIP AND FALSE CLAIMS

“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, in a New York Times interview. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”[7]

The Times and ProPublica collaborated on an expose of China’s censorship efforts, which was published in late December 2020. The journalists received leaked documents, including more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the central office of the CAC, (based in the eastern city of Hangzhou) for their stories. They also surreptitiously gained access to internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services. A Chinese government-backed business, Urun Big Data Services manufactures software that local governments can utilize to monitor internet discussions and manage armies of online commenters.

One of the CACs first actions was to silence the “Wuhan Eight” in early January 2020. This was a group of citizens who reported the truth about the Coronavirus outbreak in their city to others in China. One of them was Dr. Li Wenliang, who was castigated as a “rumormonger doctor” on Weibo, WeChat and other China-based social media outlets.

Dr. Wenliang and seven others were detained for questioning. Some were imprisoned, and all were “re-educated” for their actions.  “After I sent the message, the police found me and made me sign an official letter of criticism,” Dr. Wenliang said (see the photograph). According to a photo of the letter included in Li’s post, the police chastised him on Jan. 3 for “making untrue comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.”[8]

Government censors doubled down once Dr. Wenliang contracted Covid-19 in late January, and then died of it on February 7.CAC “officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets. They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: ‘As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results,’” read one of the CAC directives. [9]

Below you see “screen shots” of actual orders from the CAC, along with an English translation. OF NOTE: I’ve made attempt through multiple sources to ascertain the whereabouts of the other members of the “Wuhan Eight” following their admonishment and “re-education” last January. No one knows what has happened to them.

CAC control of narratives continued as the Coronavirus outbreak worsened in February. Censors economically rewarded posting commentators for flooding social media sites with distracting chatter.  Additionally, CAC and others in the CCP continuously monitored internal social media communications among its citizens and encouraged appropriate comments while taking down content it deemed inappropriate.

The ProPublica/New York Times reporters write that the CAC then intensified its virus-related directives with mandates on what to promote on local news aggregator websites and social media. The orders specified which links should be featured on the home screens of news sites, how many hours they should remain online, and even which headlines should be bold faced. Words such as “incurable” and “fatal” were never to be used. At a time when about half the Chinese nations was under a PLA-enforced lockdown, usage of the word “lockdown” was forbidden. The CAC ordered its censors to emphasize the “vital contributions” of Chinese Communist Party members and the heroism of local medical workers sent to Wuhan in their posts.[6]

As the Coronavirus continued, both the Cyberspace Administration of China and Urun Big Data Services heightened their censorship and control of the internal narrative, even broadening the scope of their activities. Urun-made software that find key words on social media accounts was employed to flag, fine, and punish citizens who spread worries. CAC workers in one county boasted in a report that it has 1,500 “cybersoldiers” monitoring closed groups on WeChat, another popular China social app. In another county, CAC minions conducted a crackdown where 16 people were investigated by police, 14 given warnings, and two were detained.[7]

According to an analysis of computer code and leaked documents from Urun, the company’s products can track online trends, coordinate censorship activity and even manage fake social media accounts for posting comments. According to one account, commenters in the southern city of Guangzhou were paid 25 yuan (the Chinese dollar) for an original post of longer than 400 characters. Flagging a negative comment for deletion earned them 40 cents. Reposts were worth one cent apiece.[8]

Urun also makes a smartphone app that streamlines the CAC’s staffers’ work. They receive tasks within the app, post the requisite comments from their personal social media accounts, then upload a screenshot. The upload serves as proof that the task was completed.[9] Social media platforms commonly used in the West, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, are prohibited internally within China. The nearest equivalents, Weixin and WeChat, which have 1.2 billion active users.  Government censors greatly restricted information about the coronavirus outbreak on these platforms in China in early 2020. In addition to removing content it deemed “sensitive,” CAC regularly blocks accounts for discussing issues such as human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of China and the coronavirus pandemic.[10]

If an account is blocked, follow-up actions usually include a police visit, questioning of the user. “I was shocked and befuddled,” said a Chinese student studying in Australia, whose account was blocked earlier this year for posting comments critical of the government’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. “It puts me in a very awkward situation because having your WeChat blocked means telling others you have dissenting political views, which is frowned upon when you are looking for a job.”[11]

For those in China who did not follow the dictates of the CAC and PLA about communicating about the Coronavirus, disappearance and or jail time is the result. On December 28, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison over her social media posts and blogs about the pandemic in Wuhan.[12]

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the Party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Zhang’s sentencing. “Because of the CCP’s gross malfeasance, the rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan after the CCP-imposed strict media controls were enforced and a controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic,” he said. “Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth.”[13]

Eliminating truthful accounts was also critical to another part of the CCP’s overall strategy, blaming others for the Coronavirus.  It did this in various ways and with many different communication channels. A main one was to subvert diplomatic channels to propagate baseless conspiracy theories. In March 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Lijian Zhao claimed at a news briefing and then in a Tweet that “Patient Zero” in the pandemic was an American soldier who participated in the October 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan.[14]

China later stated — with no proof — that the virus emanated from the U.S. Army’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. These lies were part of an external PR/propaganda campaign covering up the true origins of Covid-19’s first patients and initial diagnoses. However, weeks of delays and obfuscation both by Hubei Province officials and the Chinese Communist Party were integral to the overall strategy of deception.[15]

Delay was also a part of the plan. “…China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information,” according to a June Associated Press story. “Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.

“Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11,” the story continues. “Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.”[16]

The timeline of the Coronavirus’ outbreak is of critical importance here. Spiegel’s story lists December 20, 2019, as when health care workers identified the first patient in Wuhan with the virus. But the CCP’s diplomatic corps was blaming others – especially the U.S. – in external communications in March 2020. In hindsight, leaked documents and emails prove that China adopted an intensive lockdown and control strategy on/around mid-January, 2020, and then launched its intensive external propaganda and communications campaign shortly after Chairman Xi’s conference call of February 23, 2020.

“Many countries are ‘weaponizing’ information, writes Donald M. Bishop, the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. “They craft narratives that support authoritarian rule, stoke nationalism to deflect discontent with their own governance, and seek to weaken the United States in several ways …” In hindsight, the CCP strived to do all this, and more, when the Coronavirus struck.[17]

  • CRITICAL ATTACKS ON OTHER NATIONS

Edward Lucas, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. He has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since the mid-1980s. He succinctly summarizes China’s strategy in “collaborating” with other nations:

In an era of geopolitical competition, the West — the U.S.-led countries of the transatlantic alliance and their East Asian allies — lacks a strategy for dealing with its most formidable competitor: the People’s Republic of China (China). But the Chinese Communist Party has a strategy for dealing with the West. It involves a long-term goal of ‘national rejuvenation’ — making China the world’s most powerful country by 2050 — implemented with decisive leadership; a clear-eyed appreciation of Western diplomatic, economic, political, and social weaknesses; and effective means of exploiting them. These tactics, best characterized as ‘sharp power,’ include censorship and manipulation of the information system, cyber operations, divide-and-rule diplomacy, leverage of trade and investment, and propaganda, plus military bluff and intimidation.[18]

The ‘sharp power’ tactic has been in play for years, even before to the onset of Covid-19. In 2015, the CCP seized and jailed Gui Minahi, a Hong Kong book publisher and Chinese-Swede, while he was traveling in Thailand with Swedish diplomats. His alleged crime? He was charged with passing secrets to foreigners, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by a Chinese court in 2020.[19]

Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat working as a conflict mitigation consultant, and Michael Spavor, a consultant who arranged business travel to North Korea, were imprisoned in China in 2018. Both are still in jail, charged with espionage. It’s believed that that this was done in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhow, Huawei Corp’s chief financial officer.[20] Meng has been indicted in the U.S. for fraud and conspiracy in relation to allegations she lied to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong in August 2013 about Huawei’s control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. U.S. prosecutors claim HSBC relied on Meng’s assurances to continue handling financial transactions for the Chinese telecommunications giant, placing the bank at risk of loss and prosecution for breaching the sanctions. Meng has been free on bail and lives a normal life in Vancouver, BC, as her extradition proceedings continue.[21]

Gui, Kovrig and Spavor are simply human pawns under control of the CCP. The two Michaels, both Canadian citizens, have now been jailed for more than two years. No evidence has been presented against them. There is no trial date set. Abroad, China’s ministers employ diplomatic and economic pressure in efforts to will their way against its accusers. An example: China’s embassy denounced Italian parliamentarians as “irresponsible” when they invited Hong Kong activist and democracy leader Joshua Wong come to Rome and testify about China’s crackdown in November 2019.[22] Wong is one of 53 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who were rounded up and arrested in a dawn raid on January 6, 2021. More than 1,000 police officers participated in the mass arrests.[23]

But It was the COVID-19 crisis, however, which revealed the full colors of China’s enmity diplomatic strategy. Beijing’s representatives in France, Sweden, and Venezuela have all issued papers and statements indicating an air of superiority and high-handedness. An unnamed Chinese diplomat posted a statement that included the claim that French nurses had abandoned their patients in nursing homes, leaving them to starve.[24]

The Chinese embassy in Caracas tweeted that Venezuelan officials should “put on a face mask and shut up,” after they had referred to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus.”[25] The Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Swedish foreign ministry after putting down Sweden, comparing it to a lightweight boxer taking on a heavyweight.[26]

Two nations singled out for intensive attacks from the CCP are the United States and Australia. It is important to note that although Chinese prohibits social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from operating in its boundaries, its CAC propagandists are adept at creating and using fake social media accounts in Western nations to assail those nations’ leaders. These inauthentic social media accounts are especially active in Western democracies. In mid-March, for example, alarming messages that the Trump administration was about to lockdown the U.S. due to the Coronavirus spread rapidly on social media platforms and via cell phones. “They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” one of the messages warned.  The messenger was allegedly a military parent. “He (a soldier) said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared … with dispatch orders.”[27]

These types of messages were so widespread that the National Security Council took to Twitter to announce that they were “FAKE” (all caps theirs). Security officials noted then that Chinese disinformation efforts are more likely to spread through text messages and encrypted phone apps than on social media platforms.[28]

In April, as a result of months of hostile Chinese actions against it (see below) Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Furious Chinese retaliation, which continues to this day, includes “shadow bans,” an informal refusal to import a host of Australian goods, including barley, wine and timber. In June, ships hauling Australian coal across the ocean began to be stranded at several Chinese ports. Today many of these ships are still being prohibited from unloading their coal supplies.

Martin Hála is a sinologist with Charles University in Prague He wrote this for the National Endowment for Democracy:

After almost three decades of global economic integration, it is clear that private enterprise and international trade do not operate according to the same rules in authoritarian states. Instead, illiberal regimes like those in Russia and China use capital as a foreign policy tool and often as a form of strategic corruption to bolster authoritarianism as a globally competitive governance system. Authoritarian corrosive capital typically hides amid layers of larger exchanges with authoritarian regimes, the majority of which may appear legitimate and can have a financial, political, or cultural character. These funds target critical institutions and key individuals in open societies as a way to repurpose them into instruments of foreign interference.[29]

This report from was completed before the Coronavirus outbreak was widespread, but in its next phase of the Media Warfare strategy, Hála’s posit of China’s strategic corruption rings true.  

GLOBAL LEADER CORNERS THE WORLD MARKET ON PPE, THEN SEEKS THANKS

A third reason why China delayed acting and reporting on Covid-19 was so it could refine and then implement a strategy designed to enhance its reputation as a global leader. But this one backfired under the microscope of journalists and foreign government scrutiny. Keep in mind that China had placed half its nation in lockdown mode by mid-January 2020, but was still hiding Coronavirus details from the outside world. It was also continuing to let its citizens (including those from Wuhan) to board planes and to travel all over the globe.

The plan was simple: In January, the CCP through its United Work Front Department (UFWD) sent out a global directive to Chinese living outside the country, called the diaspora, to purchase as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as rapidly as possible, and then to ship it to China. Then months later, when the Coronavirus had spread around the world, China would then be in a position to provide masks and other PPE, respirators, and additional life-saving equipment to other nations. Then as other nations struggled against Covid-19, China would recover and return to normal sooner and rebound ahead of the rest of the world.

According to the U.S. State Department, the CCP uses the work of a “United Front” of organizations and constituencies outside of China to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to its policies and authority.  “The CCP’s UFWD is responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations, through propaganda and manipulation of susceptible audiences and individuals.[30]      

“The CCP’s United Front permeates every aspect of its extensive engagements with the international community,” continues a descriptor on the State Dept. website. “It targets the highest levels of Western democracies, creates a permanent class of China lobbyists whose primary job is to sell access to high-level Chinese leaders to corporate America.”[31]

According to an investigative report from Global News Canada, the news website of the Canadian Global Television Network, the CCP deployed its clandestine United Front networks — run out of Chinese consulates in cities from Vancouver to Toronto to New York to Melbourne to Tokyo —  to encourage millions of ‘overseas Chinese’ to bulk-buy N95 masks in order to ship ‘back batches of scarce supplies for the motherland.’”[32]

Mexico’s then-ambassador to Beijing, Jorge Guajardo, Mexico, told Global News that by Jan. 23 he had ascertained that Beijing was involved in massive PPE imports. Two months later, the masks which China purchased in January and February were being sold back to Mexico at 20 to 30 times the same price. Both CNN and the Washington Post reported that in April China was selling back PPE at more than 1,000 percent of the prices seen in early January.[33] “This pandemic got complicated because of China’s coverup at the start,” Guajardo explained. “And now it is further complicated by China leaving the world naked with no supply of PPE.”

Similar United Front networks were doing the same “buy immediately and ship to China” activities all over the world. The U.S. Congressional Research Services reported on one such instance in Australia, where several Chinese real estate developers sent more than 82 tons of PPE to China.[34]

In the U.S. and other nations around the world, by March volunteers were making hand-sewn masks for nursing homes and hospitals in an effort help “stop the spread” of the Coronavirus and alleviate a perceived global shortage. But due to the CCP’s actions in January, China had simply used its advance knowledge to corner the market. By April China had sold nearly 4 billion masks to foreign countries.[35]

Then, in a move to position itself as a global leader, China made it appear that some of its newly-acquired PPE stockpile was being used for humanitarian purposes. And as it shipped supplies to other nations, two patterns emerged. China put a priority on providing equipment to nations most supportive of its “Belt and Road” initiative, and some of the PPE was faulty.

Italy was an example. China sent a plane full of medical supplies, including masks and respirators, to Italy. At the same time, it pressured European governments via diplomatic channels to make public expressions of thanks to the Chines government for the supplies. But it wasn’t a donation. “Before the virus hit Europe, Italy sent tons of PPE to China to help China protect its own population,” a U.S. official told the The Spectator, a British-based weekly news magazine.  “China then has sent PPE back to Italy, some of it, not even all of it, and charged them for it.”[36]

Spain rejected and returned 50,000 faulty Covid-19 testing kits after purchasing about $519 million worth of PPE supplies, including ventilators, masks and gloves, from China. In the Netherlands, government officials recalled 600,000 made in China masks for failing to meet safety standards.[37]

Speaking in a podcast for the International Forum for Diplomatic Studies, the German Marshall Fund’s Asian Program Senior Fellow, Mereike Ohlberg, characterizes China as an aggressor nation which coerces others in Europe and threatens economic retaliation if it refuses to do the CCP’s bidding. “An increasing number of governments have really had it, (especially) after being inundated with requests to thanks China publicly for (supplying) what turned out to be faulty equipment, faulty PPE,” she says.[38]

Ohlberg frames her analysis of China’s strategies and actions based upon global best interests. She says one cannot be “value neutral” about the CCP, and we need to understand what the Communist Party is striving to achieve. “Other countries can’t have a dialogue about democracy in China, but CCP’s goals is to make the world more accepting of (China and) its authoritarian norms. That’s not in the interest of anyone who’s in the interest of democracy. We should really pay attention it and get a better grip on what’s happening so we are able to counter it.”[39]

After several months of negotiations between the World Health Organization (WHO) and China, In January 2021, the WHO has a 10-person team of medical experts ready to investigate the Coronavirus outbreak there. However, the Chinese government denied team members entry into China on January 6.[40] At the same time, as nations across the globe are struggling against a resurgent wave of the Cornavirus pandemic. Chinese residents in Hubei Province and elsewhere are again subject to lockdown and quarantine.[41]

In Southern China, some cities are experiencing rolling electricity blackouts and a lack of heat. Despite this, CCP authorities still refuse to allow the unloading of ships coming from Australia, cargo holds full of coal, that are docked in ports in China. This will be the launching point for Part III of China versus the Truth. 


[1] Retrieved from Taipei Times, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2020/12/08/2003748301

[2] Halper, Stephan “China: The Three Warfares,  Retrieved from https://cryptome.org/2014/06/prc-three-wars.pdf

[3] McGregor, Richard “China’s Deep State: The Communist Party and the Coronavirus” The Lowy Institute, July 23, 2020  Retrieved from https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/china-s-deep-state-communist-party-and-coronavirus

[4] Ibid

[5] Lucas, Edward “A China Strategy” Center for European Policy Analysis, December 2020

[6] Zheng, William “Coronavirus is China’s Fastest-Spreading Public Health Crisis, President Xi Jinping Says’, South China Morning Post, 23 February 2020 Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3051988/coronavirus-chinas-fastest-spreading-public-health-crisis

[7] Kao, Jeff; Zhang, Raymond; Mozur, Paul; Krolik, Aaron “Leaked Documents Show How China’s Army of Paid Internet Trolls Helped Censor the Coronavirus” ProPublica/NY Times, Dec. 20, 2020  Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/leaked-documents-show-how-chinas-army-of-paid-internet-trolls-helped-censor-the-coronavirus

[8] Wang Lianzhang, “‘Rumormonger’ Doctor Who Raised the Alarm Says He Has Coronavirus” Sixth Tone News, retrieved from https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005150/rumormonger-doctor-who-raised-the-alarm-says-he-has-coronavirus

[9] Kao et al, Opcit

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Jing Wang, “WeChat Becomes a Powerful Surveillance Tool Everywhere in China,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 23, 2020

[15] Ibid

[16] Klett, Leah Marie Ann “Mike Pompeo calls for release of Chinese Christian journalist jailed for Wuhan reporting” Christian Post, January 4, 2021

[17] Ibid

[18] Patterson, Dan “Trolls are spreading conspiracy theories that a U.S. Army reservist is ‘COVID-19 patient zero.’ China is amplifying that disinformation,” CBS News, online, 30 April 2020, Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-patient-zero-china-trolls/

[19] Excellent resource: Bernhard Zand and Veronika Hackenbroch, “A Failed Deception: The Early Days of the Coronavirus Outbreak in Wuhan,” Spiegel International, online, 12 May 2020, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/a-faileddeception-the-early-days-of-the-coronavirus-outbreak-in-wuhan-a-70effc1e-0200-440f-bb62- 07cda261de11

[20] Associated Press, June 2, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/how-china-blocked-who-chinese-scientists-early-coronavirus-outbreak-n1222246

[21] Bishop, Donald M. “Disinformation Challenges in a Pandemic,” Foreign Service journal, July-August 2020.

[22] Lucas, Edward, op cit

[23] Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51624433

[24] Humphrey, Peter, “The Cruel Fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China“ the Diplomat, Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2019/12/the-cruel-fate-of-michael-kovrig-and-michael-spavor-in-china/

[25] Proctor, Jason “Meng Wanzhou braces for fight over bail conditions as extradition case gears up in 2021,” CBC News, December 23, 2020  Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/meng-wanzhou-bail-abuse-hearings-1.5853552

[26] Italian MPs ‘Irresponsible’ with Wong: China Embassy,” ANSA, November 29, 2019, Accessed from https://www.ansa.it/english/news/2019/11/29/italian-mps-irresponsible-with-wong-china-embassy_2d3dfd28-b973-4ce0-9981-c6730e8eaa88.html  (accessed June 15, 2020).

[27] Yanni Chow, Yoyo Chow, “Hong Kong arrests 53 for plot to ‘overthrow’ government in latest crackdown on dissent” Reuters, Jan. 6, 2021, Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-security/over-50-hong-kong-activists-arrested-for-breaching-security-law-media-idUSKBN29B01K

28 Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in France, “Rétablir des Faits Distordus: Observations d’un Diplomate Chinois en poste à Paris” (Restoring Distorted Facts: Observations of a Chinese Diplomat in Paris), April 12, 2020, https://www.actualiteivoire.info/economie/retablir-des-faits-distordus-pourquoi-les-medias-occidentaux-denigrent-les-efforts-de-la-chine-par-le-faux-diplomate/ (accessed June 15, 2020).

[29]  Allen-Ebrahimian, “China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy Comes to Twitter.”

[30] Zhuang Pinghui, “China’s Ambassador to Sweden Summoned After He Hit Out at ‘Smears’ in Latest Outburst Against Beijing Critics,” South China Morning Post, January 18, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3046689/chinas-ambassador-sweden-hits-out-smears-latest-outburst (accessed June 15, 2020).

[31] Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg, Julian E. Barnes “Chinese Agents helped spread messages that sowed virus panic in U.S., officials say”  New York Times, April 22, 2020, updated August 23, 2020

[32] Ibid

[33] Martin Hala, “A New Invisible Hand: Authoritarian Corrosive Capital and the Repurposing of Democracy,” Retrieved from https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/New-Invisible-Hand-Authoritarian-Corrosive-Capital-Repurposing-Democracy-Hala.pdf

[34] U.S. Department of State, retrieved from https://www.state.gov/chinas-coercive-tactics-abroad/

[35] Ibid

[36] Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/6858818/coronavirus-china-united-front-canada-protective-equipment-shortage/

[37] Ibid

[38] Congressional Research Service, ”COVID-19: China Medical Supply Chains and Broader Trade Issues,”                                Retrieved from https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46304

[39] New York Post, retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/04/06/china-sold-nearly-4-billion-masks-to-foreign-countries-over-past-month/

[40] Ibbetson, Ross,                                       Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8193197/China-forces-Italy-BUY-masks-coronavirus-supplies-donated-Beijing.html

[42] Ibid

[42] International Forum for Diplomatic Studies, Power 3.0 podcast, September 24, 2020, featuring Mereike Ohlberg. Retrieved from https://www.power3point0.org/2020/09/24/china-the-party-and-the-world-a-conversation-with-mareike-ohlberg/

[43] Ibid

44 Covid: WHO team investigating virus origins denied entry to China, BBC News, Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55555466

[45] Nichole Hao, “Following Virus Outbreak, Chinese Villagers Forced to Quarantine in Facilities With No Heating,” Retrieved from https://www.theepochtimes.com/following-virus-outbreak-chinese-villagers-forced-to-quarantine-in-facilities-with-no-heating_3649563.html

Multiple media reports on this. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/05/chinese-cities-go-dark-amid-shortage-of-coal-a-key-australian-export.html



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PODCAST “China vs. The Truth, Part I”

Following the advice of some of my present and former students, content appearing on my blog site is now also a podcast. Here is a link to the podcast:

If you wish to read the entire blog, here is a link.

https://disinformationcampaigns.com/2020/12/29/china-vs-the-truth-2/

VACCINATION Q & A

Back in February 24, in this blog, I warned about Covid-19 and disinformation. This was around the time when the World Health Organization identified misinformation and falsehoods being circulated about Covid-19 as an “infodemic.” As this pandemic raged, we witnessed simultaneous ruses in the form of many different disinformation campaigns aimed at the general public. Millions of people have become “unwitting actors” to these ruses by sharing false or misleading information on their personal social media accounts about the coronavirus.

Then, as the Coronavirus resurged in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed exciting news about FDA approval of vaccines (Pfizer’s was approved on Dec. 10, and OKed for distribution on Dec. 12) and now widespread shipment of the vaccines for immediate inoculation of those on the front lines of the battle against the virus: Health care workers, and nursing home staff and residents. Some of these people will receive vaccinations this week (Week of December 13-20).

Yet Disinformation Campaigns about the vaccine continue appearing in social media.

Recently, as I wrapped up grading final papers from my classes, I engaged in an email Q-and-Q session with two people in Northeast Ohio whom I most trust about vaccines and medications, Dr. Natalie Belle and Dr. Kyle Gustafson. Dr. Belle is a vascular surgeon in Westlake and also a professor at my higher education institution, Cuyahoga Community College. Dr. Gustafson teaches at NEOMED and is also the Critical Care Pharmacist at Southwest General Hospital. There he has been a team member caring and treating for hundreds of Covid-19 patients.

Below are excerpts from their answers. NB stands for Dr. Belle, and KG stands for Dr. Gustafson.

Q:           These Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly. Are they safe Are they effective?

NB:         Yes. These vaccines were developed using new development techniques that do not require years of work. We have had the sequence of this virus since January (sent to scientists as soon as it was worked out). We used to use animal serums for vaccine development, a technique that is not done today with modern powerful computing modeling techniques and international cooperation by scientists (virologists, immunologists, and pharmacology experts) worldwide. Pharmaceutical companies still went through Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3 trials from which data was analyzed and shared in a very open manner. Scientists are simply more efficient and better in terms of vaccine and pharmaceutical development thanks to modern tools, modern research, and modern data sharing.

Dr. Natalie Belle

KG:         Yes. The Pfizer study compared 21,823 people who got the vaccine to 21,828 people who got a placebo injection. They followed each patient for two months, assessing for new, symptomatic, cases of COVID as well as any reported side effects. The study did a good job of including “everyday” people: people with obesity, diabetes, HTN, and other common disease states. The study showed that patients who received two doses of the vaccine had a 95% reduction in their risk for developing a symptomatic COVID-19 infection.

Q:           Some malicious people in social media posts are claiming that taking the vaccine will actually cause someone to get Covid-19. What do you say about that?

KG:         This vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. Small pieces of genetic code are stored in fat globules, which eventually find their way into the cell. Once in the cell, the RNA causes the cell to produce a single COVID protein (the so called “spike protein”) which our body recognizes as foreign and therefore builds an immune response to it. It is physically impossible to get COVID from this vaccine because there is only a single protein, not an entire virus.

NB:         No vaccine causes the disease it is designed to control. Vaccines allow the human body to make antibodies that protect against infection by building immunity to it.

Q:           What about side effects? Some are saying the side effects are worse than the disease.

NB:         No. It is true that we don’t know everything about the vaccines or even the disease, but no licensed physician in this country will recommend or administer any pharmaceutical that they know is harmful to their patients. There are many vaccines in development at various stages. Each vaccine is evaluated in terms of efficacy and safety by independent scientific review based on data submitted at all stages in the development process. In the USA, the FDA advisory committee and the CDC both evaluate data from clinical trials and are not affiliated with the pharmaceutical companies. Both agencies are charged with the review and regulation of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Patient safety is always the top priority.

Dr. Gustafson

KG:         No. Based on the two month’s worth of data currently available, the vaccine looks very safe. The common side effects of muscle pain, fever, and chills occurs with relative frequency…. These side effects also appear to be greater in patients under 55 and worse with the second dose. This makes a lot of sense, since these reactions are evidence of immune system activation- meaning more reaction the second time, and less reaction as we age. (See note below)

Q:           Shouldn’t I wait for several months and see what happens to others who have been inoculated first?

NB:         Medical care decisions should be made by individuals in consultation with their physician who knows their medical needs. Making decisions based on what is heard on the news or read on social media is not a sound practice and in terms of Covid-19, can result in death. The physician who knows you and your medical history can advise you on your needs based on the science that is available. Additionally, everyone should not try to rush to take this vaccine but who should wait and who should be first in line is a decision that will be made by physicians who are the top health experts on the healthcare team by virtue of their education and training. 

KG:          I am not a physician and I am not your physician. You should consult with your physician about what’s best for you. Personally, I will receive vaccination as soon as it is available to me. There is also more to consider.  There has been a strong/vocal group that has said that the economic shutdown is worse than the COVID disease that it is attempting to control. There is another strong/vocal group that feels that the deaths and suffering from COVID are more important than the economy. Group #1 says: I’ll take my chances with the virus. Group #2 says: I’ll take my chances with the economy.  

Source: Freshmaning at Penn State University website
https://sites.psu.edu/curottorclblog/2015/02/04/uncle-sam-m-d/

This vaccine IS the best middle ground. It allows us to protect people from death and harm. It also is the fastest, and easiest, path towards being able to fully open up the economy. It is both faster than waiting for herd immunity and is actually safer than getting the virus itself. For everyone who has felt that “the economy needs to be open, despite the risk” this vaccine appears to be the opportunity to both open the economy AND reduce the risk at the same time. The sooner we hit 80-90% exposure (through vaccine or natural exposure) the sooner everything gets better.

Dr. Gustafson also wrote a most informative post explaining many other aspects of Covid-19. It is linked here for those who are interested in more details:

My post in February is linked here: (https://disinformationcampaigns.com/2020/02/24/coronavirus-also-in-infodemic/)

NEXT: Evil actors who are conducting Disinformation Campaigns aimed at dissuading you from getting vaccinated.