國際秩序 地區研究 東亞

【IFIMES】後真相時代 – 中國的假新聞如何威脅國際安全 How Beijing’s Disinformation Campaign threatens International Security in the Post-Truth Era

The following content is provided by IFIMES

(Author: Sze-Fung Lee)


Ever wonder how disinformation[1] could have shaped the next information warfare in the post-truth era? With the continuous advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and our overwhelming reliance on social media, the potential ramifications provoked by state-sponsored disinformation campaign could be disastrous. Indeed, given its relative low cost, low barriers with easy access to basically anywhere that allow free flow of information, disinformation serves as a perfect strategy in the new era of hybrid warfare.

Indeed, western countries have been noticing an alarming surge in political polarization with a pattern of declining public trust for mainstream media[2], implying the increasing susceptibility of the public to fake news. While this kind of information warfare is likely to dominant future warfare as technological advancement continue to upsurge, the liberal democratic structure of the western societies that enables freedom of speech provides fertile ground for adversaries, especially dictated regime to exploit. This article focused primely on China, its ideology, and reasons to deploy disinformation as part of its grand strategy, as well as the tactics Beijing would likely to use in the upcoming information warfare.


Hybrid Tactics as the Grand Strategy—and Disinformation

First announced by the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2003, the “Three Warfare”—which included the coordinated use of strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulation, as well as legal warfare designed to manipulate strategies, defense policies, and perceptions of target audiences abroad[3]-— acted as political guidelines and mutually reinforcing strategies for the People’s Liberal Army (PLA). While the Three Warfare primely aims at exploiting the adversary’s weaknesses to disrupt their opposition to PRC’s agendas[4], Chinese hybrid warfare has much more potential destruction with the integration of other hybrid tactics such as clandestine diplomacy and irregular warfare.

As a matter of fact, the nature of liberal society and democratic structure makes it difficult to resist hybrid warfare—western nations’ domestic politics could be readily usurped by Beijing’s use of disinformation and geo-economic influence, since the system are “protected by the very same liberal values that these hybrid means are designed to subvert”[5]. Hybrid warfare thus constitute the best strategy for Beijing to weaken opponents’ counterbalancing potential. Free media, for instance, which represents a basic value of liberal democracy, provided sufficient room for hybrid interference. Whilst freedom of speech allows free flow of information, free press is susceptible to fake news and propaganda conducted by coordinated disinformation campaigns, which conceivably result in a delegitimization of the media’s credibility, as well as an internal division among different target audience[6]. In addition, the echo chamber and filter bubbles effect constituted by the news feed algorithm further reinforce information consumption pattern[7] and thus further generates political polarization and potential social turmoil such as the United States capital attack on Jan 6th, 2021. The nature of fake news, indeed, has constituted its easy deployment with great effectiveness.


The Ultimate Nightmare—Deep Fakes for Disinformation campaign 

Constructed by machine learning techniques, deep fakes—images, videos and sound records that mimics one’s speech or action, of which that person had never did or said in reality—are backed by a specific type of deep learning method named as the Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN), where two self-supervised algorithms automatically “learn” from each other. In such method, one algorithm (the generator) produces a synthetic image of a person whereas the other algorithm (the discriminator) reviews the level of authenticity of that image and provides feedback to the former. Generator takes “advises” from discriminator and thus being able to improve every time it creates new image. After thousands and thousands of training cycles, GAN’s algorithms would be either skillful in producing synthetic images or differentiate images’ authenticity. Due to the constant evolvement of AI and its technological sophistication, deep fakes are hence extremely hyper-realistic and difficult to be detected by human eyes[8][9]. Therefore, when deployed as a form of disinformation, deep fakes could bring disastrous implications from democracies to international security.

In relations to Beijing’s strategy, the use of deep fakes could be deployed from the fabrication of public figures and ordinary citizens.

First, deep fakes that aim at politicians, celebrities, and key opinion leaders (KOL) will have an agenda of defamation and/or shaping public opinion. Take the presidential election in 2020 as an example. Both Trump and Biden were being accused of having sexual misconduct during their election campaign. What if, there is a deep fake video portraying such criminal behaviors released the night before election? How would this have reshaped public opinion on their suitability of candidacy? Given the difficulty to debunk fake news in real time, one could only speculate the extent of damage caused to his/her reputation and the country’s democratic system.

Internationally speaking, deep fakes does not only have the potential to damage diplomatic relations but also generating intra and inter-state warfare. What if, a deep fake video illustrating U.S. president stating that America’s nuclear umbrella will no longer shelter her allies? Or Washington is planning on withdrawal of NATO, that collective defense is just a political discourse? How devastated will it be to the alliance relations and U.S. government’s credibility? Such reputation loss is often irreversible, regardless of the authenticity of the news being verified afterwards or not.

In addition, AI-generated people could be used as “witnesses” to create the illusion of “truth” for disinformation. In fact, certain private companies are already offering disinformation as services, including automated and human-curated accounts, as well as trolling and other AI services[10]. These campaigns are often deployed for a certain political actor, according to an Oxford study in 2020[11].

Moreover, other forms of AI system including Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT)[12] which can generate text that synthesize human writings, could bring fake news and information warfare to the next level, especially when it comes to complexed international politics[13]. Together with the use of hyper-realistic deep fakes, fake accounts, personal statements, and opinion pieces would appear to be authentic—further blurring the line between truth and post-truth, meanwhile, undermining confidence in traditional media and state’s authority.

Perceptibly, the integrated use of private companies’ and state-sponsored disinformation—for instance, the 50-cent army, a notorious internet trolls employed by the CCP, which is responsible for about 450 million fake posts and comments every year[14] masquerading themselves as ordinary citizens in attempt to sway public opinion in favor of Beijing[15]—would be heavily deployed as part of the disinformation campaign/ strategy in the next information warfare.


Tailored-made disinformation

The second characteristics of China’s present (and future) disinformation would be tailored-made to certain target groups, especially its diaspora Chinese community. Overseas Chinese’ tendency to “stick to themselves and form distinct diaspora communities within their settling countries”[16] had paved way for Beijing to exert its surveillance, control, and manipulation on its people, regardless of their physical geographical location. And the spread of disinformation could be effortlessly accomplished through these significant features.

For instance, The Foreign Influence Registry Act (Bill C-282) introduced by Canada’s former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu was being deviously altered as fake news that are deliberately personalized for the Chinese audience. By portraying the Chinese community as the targeted groups and “victims” of the bill, these disinformation campaigns attempt to generate a perception that the introduction of the bill is correspond to racial discrimination against the community; thereby drawing an equal sign (albeit casual assumption) between the foreign influence registry act and the suppression of pro-China opinion, as well as control and surveillance on organizations and individuals[17] in the overseas Chinese community. Such rhetoric is indeed a discourse of danger and insecurity regardless of its truthfulness (the Chinese race being discriminated, free speech, business, and cultural exchange opportunity on the line)—it helps construct the “Chinese identity” by composing binary opposition of “us versus them”—thus provoking a certain degree of pro-Chinese sentiment and nationalism, especially for those who have always been in a more pro-Beijing stance.

Moreover, dissemination of fake news through via the use of social media like WeChat, WhatsApp[18], increases the sense of familiarity which consequently surge one’s susceptibility to disinformation[19]. Such propagation would be difficult to debunk given the fact that it is spread through community channels and end-to-end encryption communication apps.

Perceivably, China will be utilizing disinformation campaign by tailoring to certain target groups. Chinese diaspora community would inevitably be one of them as Beijing seeks to mobilize them in operation of actions that is in favor of the central authorities. The other likeliness would be agitators and organizations that have the potential to provoke political unrest. The latter is particularly alarming—especially if (when) deep fakes are tailored to spark radical actions of certain target group, which includes but not limited to far-right groups and extremists—the consequences could be riots and social turmoil, and if not impossible, a civil war.


If you want peace, prepare for war[20]

The nature of disinformation makes it easy to be deployed with great effectiveness but at a relatively low cost. Whilst social media algorithm facilitates echo chambers and filter bubbles which conveniently trap users in reinforced information consumption patterns, the psychology of disinformation often puts people in vulnerable position as mere repeated exposure would be able to surge one’s susceptibility to fake news.

Nevertheless, the world has been witnessing more frequent and intensified disinformation campaign. State-sponsored yet covert disinformation campaign could even take advantages of its clandestine nature to deny responsibility while causing chaos in the other side of the planet by generating political polarization and thus social tear.

Certainly, merely a riot or even a  civil war would not bring the U.S. down. But the time bought via such disinformation campaign and social turmoil could be. What if, such chaos is generated in times of China’s pre-emptive strike to the island? The use of fake news is only a part of Beijing’s hybrid warfare, of which included much more complexed strategies such as the integration of a satellite assault to blackout BMD system in space warfare, and other use of unorthodox methods like Chinese Maritime Militia[21] (“little blue man”) in East and South China Sea.

These situations, although hypothetical, are not impossible. Yet these potential dangers have already been undermining public’s confidence in traditional media and state’s authority, let alone when being seriously tailored and deployed in wartime. As Taiwan’s president Tsai has noted, “Taiwan does not seek military confrontation……But if its democracy and way of life are threatened, Taiwan will do what never it takes to defend itself.”[22] Akin to Taipei’s situation, like-minded democracies that hope for peace and stability must align and prepare for this information warfare as it is fundamentally threatening our liberal democratic society, as well as international security.

After all, from a realist perspective—if you want peace, prepare for war.



About the Author:

Sze-Fung Lee is a freelance journalist and a researcher at the Global Studies Institute in Hong Kong. She holds a master degree in International Security at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are in security policy, hybrid warfare, nuclear proliferation, and the politics of Hong Kong.




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[1] Disinformation, as a form of fake news, is regarded as “false, incomplete, or misleading information that is passed, fed, or confirmed to a target individual, group, or country”. For details, see Shultz, R. H. and Godson, R. (2018). Dezinformatsiya: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy, Washington, D.C.: Pergamon-Brassey, 1984, p.41. and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2018, p.7; Theohary, 2018, p.5.

[2] Greifeneder, R., Jaffé, M., Newman, E. and Schwarz, N., 2021. The Psychology of Fake News. New York: Routledge.

[3] Raska, M. (2015). ‘China and the “Three Warfares”’. The Diplomat. Available at https://thediplomat.com/2015/12/hybridwarfarewithchinesecharacteristics2/

[4] Miracola, S. (2018). ‘Chinese Hybrid Warfare’, Italian Institute for International Political Studies.  [online] Available at: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/chinese-hybrid-warfare-21853[Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[5] Wigell, M. (2019). Hybrid interference as a wedge strategy: a theory of external interference in liberal democracy. International Affairs, 95(2), pp.255-275.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Greifeneder, R., Jaffé, M., Newman, E. and Schwarz, N., 2021. The Psychology of Fake News. New York: Routledge.

[8] Chesney, R. and Citron, D. (2019). ‘Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy, and National Security’. California Law Review, Vol. 107, pp.1753-1819.

[9] Rossler, A. et al. (2019) “2019 Ieee/cvf International Conference on Computer Vision (iccv),” in Faceforensics : Learning to Detect Manipulated Facial Images. IEEE, pp. 1–11. doi: 10.1109/ICCV.2019.00009.

[10] Hsu, K., Sangvikar, D. Zhang, Z. and Navarrete, C. (2020). ‘Lucifer: New Cryptojacking and DDos Hybrid malware Exploiting high and critical vulnerabilities to infect windows devices.’ Palo Alto Networks: Unit 42. 24 June 2020.

[11] Wallace, A. (2020). “Major Data Breaches in 2019.” Toronto Sun. Available at https://torontosun.com/news/world/majordatabreachesin2019

[12] GPT is an artificial intelligence system built by OpenAI, an AI research organization based in California.

[13] Kreps, S. and McCain, M. (2019). ‘Not Your Father’s Bots—AI Is Making Fake News Look Real’. Foreign Affairs.

[14] The number is going up every year according to study.

[15] Farrell, H. (2016). ‘The Chinese Government fakes nearly 450 million social media comments a year. This is why.’ Washington Post. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkeycage/wp/2016/05/19/thechinesegovernmentfakesnearly450millionsocialmediacommentsayearthisiswhy/

[16] Forsby, A. (2011). ‘The Non-Western Challenger? The Rise of Sino-Centric China’. Danish Institute For International Studies Report.

[17] Today Commercial News. (2021). ‘Please spread the message: Conservative MP Kenny Chiu proposed <The Foreign Influence Registry Act> to suppress the Chinese community’. Available athttps://todaycommercialnews.com/canada/49207# (〈請廣傳! 保守黨國會議員趙錦榮提「外國勢力註冊」法案打壓華人社區〉,加拿大商報,2021年09月09日)

[18] Bramham, D. (2021). ‘Daphne Bramham: Conservatives face ugly barrage over party’s China policy’. Vancouver Sun. Available at https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/daphnebramhamconservativesfaceuglybarrageoverpartyschinapolicy

[19] Greifeneder, R., Jaffé, M., Newman, E. and Schwarz, N., 2021. The Psychology of Fake News. New York: Routledge.

[20] Old Latin saying “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war)

[21] Informal navy constituted by the Chinese “citizens”.

[22] Tsai, I. W. (2021).’ Taiwan and the Fight for Democracy—A force for Good in the Changing International Order’. Foreign Affairs. Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/taiwan/20211005/taiwanandfightdemocracy

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