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.

“All your democratic language are belong to us”

The invocation of the language of liberalism to damage our democracies is not new. In a system in which ideas compete for legitimacy, simply artificially pumping up one idea to an unnatural level skews the debate, and leads to damaging outcomes. The success of authoritarians and anti-democratic nations in doing this in recent years is a key feature of our time. Consequently, the voices that crow the loudest about “freedom” and “liberty” — our values — are often doing so to hijack the conversation, to polarize it, and to render it a weapon against sensible debate.

My latest: What happens when the language of democracy is hijacked?

(Photo: anastasiasoboleva/tumblr)

China points to internal divisions in West

It’s just one line in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily briefing – but it does seem to depart from the People’s Republic of China’s long-touted principle of non-intervention in other nations’ internal affairs.

In the course of criticizing the US, UK and France’s unilateral missile strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons program (for violating “the basic principle of prohibition of use of force in international law”) Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying added: “We have noted that there are also doubts and criticism in the US, the UK and France concerning the legality and legitimacy of such military strikes.”

This seems an ever-so-slight variation from statements in previous times when such cross-border commentary on other nation’s internal affairs wouldn’t happen. But delivered directly from the MFA, it can be seen as highlighting or amplifying internal division.

MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying

The MFA spokeswoman went on to echo the Russian position on Syria, drawing parallels to widely condemned 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She also repeated one of the Russia/Syrian position of – we don’t know all the facts (after years’ of footage of chemical attacks on civilians) so there is no legal basis to act. Hua Chunying said:

“…When it comes to the use of force against other countries on the ground of chemical weapons, we shall not forget the precedent of the Iraqi issue. That historical lesson should be learned, and such tragedy shall never be allowed to happen again. We noted that senior officials of those three countries you mentioned said that it is ‘highly likely’ that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, or in other words, they are still ‘looking for the evidence’. We believe that it is very irresponsible to launch military strikes on a sovereign country on the ground of ‘presumption of guilt’. The issue of Syrian chemical weapons calls for truth.”

The Russians have used the same rationale both on the Syria chemical attack and in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning. But compare China’s recent recent statement on the missile attack to its official statement after the US’s unilateral missile strikes on Syria in April 2017. (From April 7, 2017)

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.

It could very well be that these arguments are simply in the air and so China is repeating them. But given that China and Russia are opportunistic security partners when it comes to rolling back Western influence (just look at the Snowden saga), it could explain why Russian talking points are showing up at the Chinese foreign ministry press room.

Gone are the days of “we hope all parties can keep calm” (circa 2017) and now we’re entering period of highlighting divisions internal to the US, UK, and France – the same divisions, by the way, that China and Russia have the scope and power to amplify through their own networks active in the West.

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