The US has released the kernel of another intelligence assessment that describes the Kremlin’s global malign influence machine. Following the liberal tradition, it produces facts, allowing the public the make up its mind. This is in contrast to the authoritarian model that relies more on producing narrative. Democracies argue in facts. Authoritarians play with meanings. The voice in the podcast is from the State Department’s Ned Price given in a press conference. What little I know about the 36 star memo is here.
The film director Brian De Palma had this to say about director’s careers…
“We don’t plan them out, we happen to be working on one thing, then another happens, then another thing is delayed. Then we do the thing we can do at the time.”
There is a lesson in this for the great debate about whether China or Russia (or Iran or domestic extremism) are the biggest threats to democracy.
The reality is: these nations and forces are all occurring at once.
If democracies are hoping to meet and defeat these challenges and threats, they need to be able to see them in their totality. Democracies can’t afford to become inverse projections of the authoritarianism they oppose.
Rather, democracies need to better frame the whole picture we’re in today. Set up the shot and tell the story for the world to see. They need to do as the old rules around economy and technology fade away.
In just the same ways that New Hollywood directors reinvented filmmaking amid dramatic shifts in the economy of film, the imaginations of people in democracies today need to become more expansive in order to project democracy successfully into the contested and conflicted 21st Century.
*The De Palma quote above comes from his interview in the documentary De Palma by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
*The full interview with Sino-Russia expert Bobo Lo can be found here.
*Music: Igor Khorkavyy
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.
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.