The COVID-19 virus that originated in Wuhan, China, has brought the world to a grinding halt. But what’s even more terrifying than the infection rates, more terrifying than the death tolls, more terrifying than the vlogs plastered on social media from overworked doctors and nurses on the front lines?
The realization that the American media and pundit classes are more than willing to lap up and disseminate Chinese propaganda to score political points. With anti-Trump hysteria reaching critical levels, China is now acting in full confidence that American pundits and journalists will push any information that casts the President in a negative light—even if it means sacrificing their journalistic integrity.
Americans are failing, desperately, at the basics of Information Operations—and it’s costing us big time in the ongoing Cold War against China.
WHAT IS INFORMATION OPERATIONS?
The United States Military’s library of Joint Publications is the encyclopedic collection of how-to manuals on the application of warfighting capabilities against rivals. Featured in that collection is “Joint Publication 3-13,” which defines “Information Operations” as “the integrated employment, during military operations, of Information-Related Capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”
Just as other facets of warfare have evolved, so too has information warfare.
In short, it’s the controlling of information dissemination to affect an enemy’s morale and decision making abilities. And while this definition seems cerebral at best in today’s non-kinetic battlespace, the foundations hold especially true in what is now considered the fifth dimension of warfare, information/cyber.
You see, for decades, military operations were relegated to four dimensions: air, sea, land, and space. With the advent of on-demand information and a shrinking world (thanks to the internet), however, war planners have had to re-examine their concept of propaganda.
Before, the way our military conceptualized propaganda was through war-time visual posters and low-frequency radio transmissions from the likes of Axis Sally, Tokyo Rose, and Hanoi Hannah. As dissemination capabilities have democratized, however, this understanding has expanded to include the transmission of information from non-governmental (or seemingly non-governmental) mediums, such as print media, cable and network news, and social media. Just as other facets of warfare have evolved, so too has information warfare. Unlike the clearly delineated propaganda of the past, today, our defense department is faced with Twitter bots and state-sponsored media that’s able to easily penetrate our borders through the internet.
The most challenging kind of propaganda to identify, however, has been that which is disseminated by the American media themselves—a media that’s all-too-willing to push adversarial narratives to score political points.
CHINA PERFECTS THE ART OF NARRATIVE CONTROL
World-War-era propaganda was mostly static and uninspired. The United States leveraged this limited media power to rally its citizens to purchase War Bonds and enlisted Walt Disney to create patriotic animated shorts for cinema-goers.
In the post-war world, there was no better practitioner of narrative control than the USSR. Today, that position is occupied by China.
Other countries were less nuanced in the way they distributed information. Their propaganda wasn’t designed to boost morale, but dictate the beliefs of their citizens. The USSR, rife with economic strife and countless war casualties amid Hitler’s Eastern offensives, needed a way to keep conscripts motivated in the fight against a superior and motivated enemy. Out of this need, the Soviet Political Commissar was born. These men, the most fervent of Communists, could be found on the front lines of World War II battlefields cultivating photo opportunities or giving journalists canned and rehearsed quotes espousing the glory of the Motherland’s sons—regardless of the actual outcome of a battle.
This is the foundation of “narrative control,” the propagation of an alternative reality, entirely devoid of fact. In the post-war world, there was no better practitioner of narrative control than the USSR. Today, that position is occupied by China. It is a regional power that combines the dystopian realities of the USSR with an uncanny understanding of the fifth dimension of warfare.
Though the CCP is rapidly expanding its air, sea, land, and space capabilities, it understands that it is still decades away from matching American capabilities. And knowing full well that it would not be content with the United States on a traditional battlefield, it has focused intently on the information/cyber battlefield. With its Communist roots, China has no qualms in hiding truths, silencing opponents, and disappearing whistleblowers. Combine that with a tech-obsessed extremely nationalist youth, and it has a fighting force that is capable of ignoring traditional doctrines of war, free to thrive in this largely uncharted battlespace.
The United States cannot outmaneuver the Chinese in this novel dimension of warfare. On the surface, observers point to the United States’ late entry into the cyber realm, but the reasons are far more nuanced. For the longest time, national security experts believed that the cyber activity that actors like China have demonstrated didn’t rise to a threshold that the Pentagon deemed serious. This gave adversaries free reign to probe defenses and study responses, biding their time to launch offensives at their leisure.
The Chinese government learned that it could brazenly roll armored personnel carriers down highways with a thousand camera phones documenting the incident—as long as they could influence and control the conversation—the narrative.
Worse than our unpreparedness to combat a growing cyber threat, is our complete lack of counter-information operations capabilities. The RAND Corporation concluded that the threat was so novel that planners didn’t account for the targeted social manipulation on the large scale that the internet provides for. Worst of all, our liberty-touting system of government and free press made us inherently vulnerable to bad actors: our unwillingness to censor and propagandize meant that China could snake its way into the core of our information dissemination processes. This was a challenge that few in government foresaw, and none in our media considered.
Since 2016, in finding a press that’s eager to frame the current Administration in a poor light, China has found a willing host to do its bidding. Chinese Informational Operations have deftly limited Western coverage of their island-hopping campaigns to seize sovereign lands from their neighbors and were able to hide actual death tolls after the Sichuan earthquakes for over a year. They discovered that they could control the narrative of the media during the Hong Kong uprisings. The Chinese government learned that it could brazenly roll armored personnel carriers down highways with a thousand camera phones documenting the incident—as long as they could influence and control the conversation—the narrative.
That’s exactly what happened in August—the CCP threatened a new Tiananmen Square massacre as Chinese troops and tanks closed off Hong Kong’s border after weeks of unrest. At the time, their explanation seemed innocuous enough, but eventually—and all too late—satellite photos revealing unusual troop movements exposed the massive numbers of human rights violations during the protests.
That is 21st-century Information Operations.
A NEW COLD WAR, A NEW CRITICAL FRONT
Of course, this crash-course in IO is moot if you believe that the United States and China are not at war. But that couldn’t be further than the truth. We are in a de-facto state of war, and hurtling towards a new Cold War.
China doesn’t necessarily need to convince commentators to push their narrative; they just need to frame their propaganda in a marketable light.
Chinese expansionism stands in stark opposition to the United States’ foreign policy objectives for the region, and the Chinese know this. As the CCP began its foray into soft colonialism and a larger global footprint, the United States was forced to re-examine its approach to strategy against Beijing. The Trump Administration has made it clear that it wasn’t going to allow itself to be trampled on by China’s quest to control the global economy through its Made in China 2025 initiative.
This threat to China’s interests is likely why they have unleashed the full might of their cyber and information capabilities to control the information that is released by the United States’ media, exploiting our undeveloped counter-IO capabilities. The Chinese military knows that the American media wields a lot of power in the country—and is overwhelmingly anti-Trump. China doesn’t necessarily need to convince commentators to push their narrative; they just need to frame their propaganda in a marketable light.
Take, for instance, the debate surrounding the naming of COVID-19. Like most pandemics of the past, the virus was named after its place of origin. For weeks, the American media called it everything from “Chinese virus” to “Wuhan flu,” as did the President. Soon after, however, the Chinese government claimed that the inclusion of any proper noun that implicated China as the point of origin for the coronavirus was racist—and media commentators, journalists, and paid pundits rushed to criticize the President and his followers for their racism.
Some observers did question China’s official death toll statistics coming from the government. But the overwhelming majority of commentators chose the path to most internet clout: Trump-bashing. The worst part: they either didn’t care (or perhaps realize?) if their actions would advance the IO objectives of the CCP. Chinese officials have even gone as far as to blame the United States for creating and spreading COVID-19 in China. The media remained silent as the Party’s chief propagandist threw wild accusations. What should have been a significant story died in a Tweet that went unnoticed.
The media remained silent as the Party’s chief propagandist threw wild accusations. What should have been a significant story died in a Tweet that went unnoticed.
And even as more video evidence of welded-in bodies and black bagging operations are smuggled out of China, the American media has become tools in China’s campaign to evade responsibility. As of late, some journalists have evolved from scoring cheap anti-Trump points by using CCP-approved narratives to openly advocating for the adoption of Chinese policies because they view Trump’s actions as inadequate or ineffective.
The Chinese understanding of America dwarfs the American understanding of China. They have watched us for the past three years and understand the fragile political climate that we have created. They have identified the left’s absurd behavior in the age of Trump, and have capitalized upon it. They know that behind our flag-waving facade lies an easily-exploitable characteristic: our divisiveness.
If we intend to right the ship, we must learn to identify IO. In some ways, it’s easy; Chinese Twitter bots that were created between January and March of this year who push pro-Chinese reporting from State-owned news agencies can be quickly identified and shut down.
More difficult, however, is convincing American journalists and pundits to temper their biases—or at the least, criticize the Administration without pushing official CCP talking points and policies.
This is not the time to blindly and rabidly resist at all costs—when your adversary depends on you to do so. It’s the journalistic equivalent of knowingly walking into an ambush with the hope that your commanding officer will be killed.