The funny thing about democratic knowledge

The Chinese government has been angry about the Summit for Democracy since it was first announced. In the lead-up to the December event, China’s state-related accounts and outlets have waged a coordinated effort to redefine democracy’s in a way that normalises the Chinese Communist Party.

This report from Recorded Future, China’s Narrative War on Democracy teases out the cross platform effort by the CCP.

The report states: “This influence operation highlights classic examples of narrative warfare (the fight over the meaning of information and identity) and is being used strategically by the CCP in an attempt to redefine what the world thinks about democracy and sway people towards viewing China not as an autocratic, authoritarian regime, but as a beloved socialist democracy that puts its people first.”

For more on the Summit for Democracy: listen here.

Recorded Future found over 8,470 mentions of “what is #democracy?” online in the first half of December with the content originating from China’s propaganda ecosystem.

That is a lot of information.

But it’s not enough to dislodge the knowledge citizens of democracy have of their own system of government as well as that of China’s. In fact, the democratic knowledge, the knotted and complex clusters of shared information, history, experience, make it hard to accept the fanciful notion that China is a democracy.

Perhaps for that reason, Recorded Future author Charity Wright wrote: “Despite widespread amplification of this influence campaign, the individual posts on mainstream social media platforms have received minimal engagement and strong counterarguments against the idea of China being a democracy.”

When I read forensic reports written on narrative offensives, I wonder why we pay so much attention to the measurable volumes of information and content, and not the meaning that the information supports? Could it be because we mistakenly think of information security and influence campaigns as a subset of cyber security? We discuss them in the technical language of cyber campaigns, while standing back from the central power of these narratives: the competition over meanings which is the nature of the social media interaction.

The Recorded Future report states the CCP’s campaign’s “effectiveness…is difficult to assess.”

Certainly, the power of arguments can be difficult to measure, too.

Yet arguments function at the level of meaning, which can give direction and encouragement to the public. Arguments help people order and shape facts (and information) in their heads. They are the next-level of complexity, over information, and individual facts.

So when the CCP comes along with a campaign, citizens with facts organised to defend their political system become more resistant to the sham arguments of authoritarians. The formulation and promotion and publicising of “strong counterarguments” made in the battlefield of meaning could be more effective than an engineered approach.

Wuhan lab leak theory: all politics are content

Will we ever know what role, if any, the Wuhan lab had in the emergence of COVID-19? That’s hard to say. But in the absence of certainty, there’s great demand to gin up suspicion in the direction. There are information politics around this, I argue in a piece for Molly McKew’s Great Power newsletter.

To quote: President Joe Biden’s “willingness to wade into this topic in such a forthright way [by announcing the intelligence review] is surprising. But real caution is warranted. Biden wouldn’t be the first president to have their agenda co-opted or swayed by noise driven by social media, including in ways that ultimately undermined their stated policies.”

There is the vivid example of the online chatter around the Syrian Civil War in President Barack Obama’s time.

“Attention absorbed by the Mideast helped prevent the US from carrying out its long-promised Pivot to Asia in earnest, which then gave China more time and room to move in the region. I watched this play out in news cycle after news cycle from my vantage in Australian news.”

It’s also worth acknowledging that some of the loudest proponents of Wuhan lab leak theory are also oblivious doves on Russian meddling in the West. Chief among them: the GOP and associated rightwing commentators. This raises the question of how much pro-Kremlin propaganda blends in with this China-phobic content. That brings the unanswered question: why?

Read the full piece here.

‘Where are the tech elites in talking about the public good?’

This comment on the difference between the mid-20th Century American titans of finance in the post-war world and the tech elite of Silicon Valley stands out.

Zachary Karabell, an investment guy with experience in China, has written a book called, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, which traces the story of one bank and its role in the rise of the American century. (Source here).

Speaking of the US bankers, Karabell said:  

They believed that it was their duty literally to attend to the public good because they understood they couldn’t beggar the commons endlessly but their fortunes and the fortunes of society were ultimately linked and therefore they had a responsibility to make sure that everybody thrived ultimately — because they kind of knew that they couldn’t unless everyone did.

That then extends to the world at large after World War II.

The whole point of the Marshall Plan and creating this post-war architecture…was to fight communism. But it was to fight communism because the belief that capitalism and an open market was a better system to achieve human freedoms and affluence.

And that if you didn’t help [these things] develop they were going to collapse and therefore you were going to be a peril.

Serving and self-serving, serving and self-serving were so intimately and ineluctably interwoven.

And today, where are the tech elites in talking about the public good? And talking about public service?

It seems to be their version of public services is massive private philanthropy on the one hand and some belief in the utopian potential of what they’re doing to break the cycle of human suffering and need.

And maybe that utopian vision will prove to be true, but right now it does seem like that they’re sort of absent.

I think particularly of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel.

There seems to be a communitarian notion of – ‘Can we engineer this new reality? If so, how cool would it be?’ But notions of public good fade away in the glow of their particular imagined, and often unaligned and contradictory, utopias.

In the communitarianism impulse of millennial Silicon Valley, I’m not sure a conception of a public good beyond the notion of user/customer is even present.

Wuhan lab leak theory: Man might have bitten dog

A man might have bitten a dog. We’re not sure. But if the man had bitten a dog, (e.g. the COVID-19 virus escaped from a bio-weapons lab in Wuhan), it would be an incredible, earth-shaking story. But we’re far from certain. We are sure, however, that even if we can’t prove the man has bitten a dog, the interest in this scenario is so high, we really can’t help writing about it. Because, the internet and because of great power politics.

Media doesn’t generally report on the ramifications for murders that did or didn’t happen, or wars that did or didn’t start. Generally, something has to happen to be news. One exception could be the early reporting of the suspected death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was reported dead numerous times.

Something either did or didn’t happen here.

With the Wuhan lab leak story, it’s hard to recall another tale that is so frequently trotted out despite the lack of verification.

A criterion for a fact in news is that it is verifiable, or at least mostly verifiable, or at least has the possibility for verification.

The Wuhan lab leak story – because it’s action is located behind the Great Firewall, in a country controlled by a government both authoritarian and evasive – really has none of that. On a good day, the Wuhan lab leak story has a less than 50 per cent chance of being a plausible explanation. The odds never seem to change.

No matter how many virologists have a change of heart, or Trumpian partisans have a brain wave about this, the facts just aren’t firm enough. The details are not known. The origins of COVID-19 remain murky. The facts remain obscured because of the Chinese government’s actions. But adding one fact (an outbreak occurred) to another fact (China is hiding something) does not equal the third fact that “China created COVID-19 in a weapons lab.”

Yet, there is tremendous appetite in the weaponized virus scenarios being proven true. There is genuine anger at China for their mishandling of the pandemic, which it helped unleash on the world. The anger and uncertainty helps drive interest in endless articles, debates, and even books about what may or may not have happened.

At the end of the day, this news is written from the grassy knoll.

Because it’s not driven by facts, but suspicions, it smacks of “post-journalism” rather than reporting.

Pursuing a story in the hopes of holding a government to account is legitimate. But it’s not clear the CCP is feeling the pressure. Instead, a non-disprovable conspiracy theory is reventilated and recast over and over. Online, it begins to rate higher in searches and go viral on social media. The Wuhan lab leaks story begins to generate its own momentum.

If democracy relies on the possibility and power of truthful discourse, tolerating the media amplifying speculation for profit is a sorry substitute.

Geopolitically, hyping an uncertain conclusion runs the risk of becoming the flawed basis for future action.

The idea of Western media seizing on an uncertainty as a motive for political action brings to mind another famous case of that: the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The North Vietnamese probably didn’t fire on a US Navy vessel, but it was much more politically expedient to contend that North Vietnam did do this.

An almost predictable, fully avoidable political tragedy ensued.

Dr Li Wenliang

What surprises me in the Wuhan lab leak saga is how it diverts Western attention from facts we know to be true about China’s mishandling of the outbreak. China did deceive the world in the critical early days of the pandemic outbreak in Wuhan.

To what degree we don’t know.

But some basic facts and dates are verifiable.

The World Health Organization’s own review of what happened in the initial stage of the pandemic concluded:

“It is glaringly obvious to the Panel that February 2020 was a lost month, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic.” The major factors in the uncertainty and delay was China, where the government response was to hush the medical people warning about the new illness, such as Dr Li Wenliang.

What would a deeper investigation of this timeline yield? Probably a lot. What would it tell us about China’s communication with the WHO?

Much of this would be verifiable from what was known publicly at the time.

But those stories aren’t being prosecuted. It’s as if the lack of free speech in China for the medical sector has been forgotten.

In reality, we’re all paying the price.

And instead of a march toward a central place, where we can find the truth of the matter, we’re being encouraged by merchants of conspiracy to let our imaginations roam and wonder.

Our understanding of the pandemic’s beginning moves from one of forensics to one of fables.