While China’s economic warfare dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy” and aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea and land borders with other countries make it to the headlines, one of its biggest wars with the rest of the world goes unnoticed. For quite some time now, the Dragon has been waging information war through social media bots and IT cells on other countries- a phenomenon that has become even more prominent during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Several countries have reported unusual activity on their social media circles, which targets anti-China posts and users. These Chinese bots/ dedicated social media users impersonate as local social media accounts and try to weave a narrative favourable to Beijing. South Korea is one of the latest countries to report such disruptive activity by Chinese bots and users. In a report by The Diplomat, The Chinese bots and users swarmed South Korean social media as Koreans but were soon tricked and busted.
The Chinese users caused ripples on South Korean social media in February, when an online post by a Korean Chinese went viral. The user claimed that Chinese “agents” were playing a major role in pushing pro-China, pro-government content, and creating divisions within the South Korean society on the basis of differing political views.
The user also claimed that the Chinese government’s strategy is simple- bring in content that creates further friction among social media users.
But South Korean users had a plan to trick and bust the Chinese bots- they threw a “bait” by creating a fake online discussion. They posted links on prominent online communities in South Korea that were seemingly connected to a discussion board. The Chinese users masquerading as Koreans got lured in but when clicked the link redirected users to websites that are banned in China like Free Tibet or Free Hong Kong.
The Chinese bots reacted in an absurd way. Many online users who clicked the link gave an identical response “I am an individual” in Korean. The phrase “I am an individual” is meaningless and unnatural in Korea, and is not commonly used in the South.
The Chinese bots or social media users dedicated to the Communist Party of China (CCP) were probably using the phrase as a codeword to express the notion that they are not connected to these links or that they were tricked into clicking on those links.
It is very easy for the Chinese to enter the social media of other countries and impersonate as locals, as all they have to do is enter through the VPNs of those countries. The incident that happened in February has caught the eye of South Korean lawmakers Park Sung-joong, a conservative United Future Party lawmaker proposed making it mandatory for portals to reveal the location of users who post comments on such pages.
But South Korea is certainly not the first country to face the menace of Chinese bot accounts. Last year, the Sydney Herald had reported that the Chinese government was trying to “take over” Australia’s political system through operations targeted at interfering in the country’s affairs.
It quoted former intelligence chief Duncan Lewis as saying that the Chinese were looking to win over influence in the business, social and media circles of Australia, apart from eyeing politicians.
The modus operandi of these Chinese bots or CCP-backed IT cells and social media imposters is twofold- one, posting content that favours the CCP and hits out at worldwide users critical of Beijing and two, creating fissures in societies through dissemination of provocative content on their online portals.
Take the case of the United States for example. As the protests and riots triggered by George Floyd’s custodial death, social media users linked to either Moscow or Beijing went crazy. They flooded the American social media with an attempt to tap into the unrest and violence in the US. They criticised Trump administration’s handling of the protests, apart from pushing hate speech.
In fact, China has stepped up bot activity after the Coronavirus Pandemic led to a rise in anti-China sentiment across the world. The army of bot users linked to the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing went wild and started pushing disinformation on the web- it blames the US for spreading the virus apart from airing conspiracy theories such as blaming the American Army for creating the virus.
Even in India, the IT Ministry had expressed concern about misleading content about COVID-19 emanating from the social media. Open-source intelligence and fact-checking IT firm Voyager Infosec had reported that bulk videos were being posted on social media platforms prompting Muslims in India against following safe practices to avoid the Coronavirus infection.
The firm had claimed that videos shot both in India and foreign locations were being used to push misleading information about the Wuhan virus, apart from using religious abetment against health advisories. It is not a matter of surprise that such videos were predominantly posted on the Chinese app, TikTok.
The same bot infrastructure and IT cells have also been used by China to push fake information about pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong. Wherever a social media post about such issues go viral, a CCP-backed fake user tends to retaliate by showering praise on the Hong Kong Police and accusing the protesters of being a part of an American conspiracy instead.
Such bot armies tend to post Hinduphobic content in India, and many times you would notice that Indian social media posts critical of China, get flooded in the comments with gau mutra jibes and objectionable posts abusing Hindu deities, and praising the Chinese communist regime. However, these bots and social media imposters get busted when they speak in flawed English, riddled with typos and grammatical errors.
China’s information war on social media is a major threat that the world faces necessitating cooperation in cyberspace in free democracies like India, South Korea, Australia, and the US that face a common threat in China’s army of bot users and imposters.