By some measures, TikTok is the most downloaded social media app in the world. Yet even as it wins millions of users, democratic governments worry about the company’s ties to the government of the country of its origin: The People’s Republic of China.
Governments bodies in Australia and in like minded democracies overseas have taken to banning the app over fear of who has access to the data.
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 Democracyteases 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.”
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.
…and information disorder, untruths, trolling, disinformation. The virtual event is an effort to resurrect the global language of democracy after its rough start in the new century.
One of the traits of this era is escalating complexity of systems. No form of government knows that better than liberal democracy — just look at the news and social media feeds in a democratic country on any given day.
So it’s crucial in this time that there is a way to conceive of democracy simply, and as a whole.
To discuss democracy as the summit does reminds the public of the organising power of the political system. Not just institutionally, or politically but morally and mentally in a time of information overload.
This podcast discusses the challenges for democracy in the world as we find it in 2021.
Too much information, too much contradiction and too much confusion. In this era, how do we even think about where democracy stands in the world? The former president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, in a speech in honour of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, offers a clear-eyed assessment of the state of democracy today in competition with Russia, China and other autocracies. He notes how there once was moral clarity about where the West stood in relations to these countries. Not so now: one of the fallouts of 30 years of globalisation, the internet and free trade is this great blurring, which sees Western economies, governments and businesses accept the ill-gotten wealth of strongmen. Ilves poses the question: are we “un-indicted co-conspirators” in our demise? He asks in terms of money. But I think a similar case can be made in terms of information and ideas.