How to Unravel Society in 6 steps or Less | Misinformation on the post-truth global stage

How to Unravel Society in 6 steps or Less | Misinformation on the post-truth global stage

I have never worried about my country being thrown into a war. More people today than ever before can say this. We currently live in the most peaceful time in human history, no matter how deeply it seems the world is plunging into chaos.

Humans are now less likely to die by violence or war than at any time before world war two. 

Globalisation runs rampant, trade agreements span the world, and the internet has created an informational bloodstream that connects more people than ever before. This does not mean we are free from risk and aggression, just that the ecosystem has changed. Online sabotage, propaganda, and misinformation are the weapons of the second ’20s, and there might not be more of a risk to global hegemony than the internet.

Misinformation in Taiwan Case Study:

As the first quarter of the 21st century reaches its close, scholars from all corners of academia continue to foreshadow the dangers of the information age’s propaganda scourge. Global powers have begun to flex their muscles and stretch their ever-longer arms. 

China’s involvement in Taiwan’s 2020 elections has proved to be the definitive case study of how global powers can weaponise the ever-shrinking world to cast doubt on the truth and mould public opinion in a way deeply entrenched in the times we live in. This seismic shift in soft warfare has not gone unnoticed. A report from Harvard has laid out the following list of basic strategies that the CCP used to cause social upheaval in Taiwan. So tell me, do they sound familiar?

Rule One: Worsen existing social, political, economic, and generational divides.

Throughout the 2020 elections, Chinese content farms flooded the internet with fake news and conspiracy claims.  These fake news stories specifically targeted controversial cultural issues. Including false claims that LGBTQI+ blood donors had been causing the spread of HIV and fabricated stories that the Taiwanese government had been siphoning money from pension funds to compensate for a drop in Chinese tourists. These are edge issues, specifically chosen to create the most significant discord possible among the Taiwanese populace. To create anger, to divide.

Rule Two & Three: Exploit weaknesses in the informational system, control and absorb national media financially.

In 2019, articles and news segments began to appear in Taiwanese media. They gushed about the warm and welcoming China, they encouraged people to start businesses on the mainland. It was an “unprecedented opportunity,”they said. These were presented as straight, factual, unopinionated news. However, documents and paper trails were soon uncovered, revealing that each of these segments and articles was individually bought and paid for by the Chinese government. These attacks are tailor-made for Taiwan. Their media landscape is famously fast-paced, competitive, and profit-driven. Making burying the truth in an avalanche of party funding all too easy. Even more significantly, it is common practice to play commissioned segments without labels.

For years Chinese government companies have been engaging in a campaign to control Taiwanese news outlets. It has been eating away at the foundations of the media industry with buyouts, financial ties, and a slow takeover of income streams. 

These are well-regulated, well-understood mediums, TV, print, radio. If these prove so easy to control and manipulate, where does it leave the internet? A massive, unregulated web of information, thousands of individual unrelated actors. How can we tell the truth from fiction there?  

Rule Four: Use your cyber-army.

The new mediators of information are algorithms. You no longer need three or four prominent mouthpieces to reach millions. You no longer need high-profile, trusted organisations to recruit supporters for your cause. Now you can buy supporters, and they can get you exposure.

All throughout the 2020 election in Taiwan, China’s bots were roiling under the surface, spouting misinformation, whipping up conspiracy after conspiracy, specifically reinforcing pro-China, pro-unification views. These accounts spanned the entire globe and have been counted in the hundreds of thousands.  Multiple cases of American, British and Australian citizens having their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts suddenly spew pro-CCP, anti-Hong-Kong, and anti-Taiwan propaganda. The fake news stories were shared all across social media in alarming numbers. 

Their content farms spew out endless waves of fake, clickbait articles, posts with photos casting doubt on defectors. 

The CCP is demonstrating again the power held by a technologically literate regime in today’s world, where tech is constantly one step ahead of our understanding, where its influence is still not entirely known. They create a world where Rome chants the Chinese national anthem, where a photo of pineapples in a river taken in China can provoke farmers’ strikes in Taiwan.

Rule Five: Obfuscate your attack sources through technological, commercial, and legal means.

The multiple strategies that China’s misinformation campaigns exploit to manipulate public opinion require various methods of obfuscation. They need to hide deals with major Media outlets, the origin of their swarms of fake social media accounts, and make sure state-run outlets don’t get revealed as such. To keep their stream of phony information running in traditional media, the CCP keeps their deals on the highest level of the company hierarchy. They make sure the lower-level workers are held in the dark as much as possible.

They pursue libel cases against whistleblowers and journalists that contradict the party ideology. This happened in July 2019, again in the build-up to the election, when a Financial Times reporter denounced the party for meddling in the China Times editorial section, they pursued legal action against the reporter and against newspapers that quoted her claims.

Rule Six: Make your attacks partisan so that one side will at worst not condemn them and at best magnify their effects.

Imagine you’re campaigning for office. The fight is hard, and you’re not losing by much.

But, then, one of your aides comes to you with a story that’s on a well-known news site. It makes your rivals look terrible. Do you signal-boost it? Do you ignore it? It seems to me that in the age which began with the oxford dictionary naming “post-truth,” the word of the year 2016, we can expect more realpolitik than to answer no to this question.  

This is not a moral denunciation. I would like to meet the politician brave enough to pass up this opportunity; maybe that way, I could finally vote for them. They certainly don’t belong to KMT, a pro-China political party operating in Taiwan, who incidentally is the only Taiwanese party that won’t admit that China is using misinformation attacks to destabilise Taiwanese political discourse. They also collaborated with Chinese businessmen in threatening, bribing, and forcing to lie of a Chinese defector to slander the pro-independence elected party weeks before reelection.

A survival guide for a changing landscape:

“We find ourselves with two types of velina, which I would like to compare with two forms of censorship. The first is censorship through silence; the second is censorship through noise.”

Umberto Eco, Censorship and Silence

In his essay Censorship and Silence, Umberto Eco describes the change like censorship experienced during his lifetime. He describes the growing embrace of censorship via information overload that he had perceived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the intentional and unintentional, burying of the truth under a mountain of falsehood and irrelevancy. 

He even describes the internet’s role in all this, its perfect embodiment of this shift.

“The internet, of course, with no intention to censor, generates the greatest noise that yields no information.”

Umberto Eco

Take a step back and think of the list you just read. How many of these strategies do you think could be applied to your country? 

If you live in the same place as me, I would say four of five at least. Would your grandmother or uncle be able to tell the difference between a wholly fabricated Facebook post and one containing accurate information? 

Would you be able to reliably do this? Because during the research for this article, I will admit to coming across some content-farm fabrications which I fully believed months ago when they were released. 

I’m not trying to claim that western democracies are being targeted and inundated by CCP misinformation, but China isn’t the only agent to use these strategies. From special interest groups to corporations to nations themselves, global powers are already beginning to awaken to the new capabilities available to them. If we want to create a world in which the truth maintains its strength and lies are seen as such, we have no choice but to create a significantly more media-educated society than it is right now.    

The industrial revolution brought humanity unprecedented prosperity. It also brought us the decades-long fight for workers’ rights, a fight we still might not be free from. Automobiles brought us freedom and connectedness that before we could only dream about, they also brought us a battle for regulations and road safety that has claimed countless lives. The internet has connected minds across the world. It brought a voice to millions. It has brought an unregulated landscape of expression and struggle that has the potential to permanently democratise the dissemination of information. 

Could we really expect all this to come without a struggle? The fight against misinformation and censorship over the internet will be the battle of our generation.

Written by Leo Black | Illustrated by Tara Mulliss

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