Image credit: Melody Cook/CNAS
May 07, 2020
Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence Operations
The 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 and 2020 Taiwanese local and presidential elections crystallized that Russia and China are using digital interference to shape the contest between democracies and autocracies. While foreign information operations are time-tested methods of authoritarian influence, the digital space has increased the scope and speed with which these operations can be waged. Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Beijing and Moscow explicitly coordinate their information operations, the two countries are increasingly finding common cause as their interests align on a number of issues and in strategic regions.
Their digital influence campaigns work in tandem and toward the following objectives:
- Undermine liberal democratic norms and institutions.
- Weaken cohesion among democratic allies and partners.
- Reduce U.S. global influence.
- Advance Russian and Chinese positions.
Over the last several years, Beijing and Moscow have taken different paths to advance these shared goals. Although the differences in their approach to digital influence are likely to persist, there is growing evidence that the two countries are learning from each other and enhancing their coordination, leading to a growing convergence in their digital influence efforts. This is occurring in real time as China and Russia seek to obscure the origins of COVID-19 and while Beijing cynically recasts itself as the global leader in responding to the very pandemic it failed to contain.
Democracies worldwide are likely to see growing synergy between the two authoritarian powers in the information environment. In fact, digital influence efforts by China and Russia have already proved mutually reinforcing by:
Magnifying impact through complementary approaches. Although China’s and Russia’s approaches are different and seemingly uncoordinated, taken together, they have a more corrosive effect on democracy than either would have single-handedly.1 Russia propagates narratives designed to undermine trust in institutions and elected governments, and this creates fertile ground for Chinese narratives about the superiority of authoritarian systems to take root.
Amplifying narratives. There are a growing number of instances in which Chinese and Russian narratives overlap, amplifying the impact of such messages. Chinese and Russian media and diplomatic institutions have forged symbiotic relationships that support the creation of an entirely alternative information ecosystem in which truth is called into question.
Legitimizing norm change. In multilateral forums, China and Russia are jointly chipping away at norms and standards governing the free flow of information. Together, they seek to bend the arc of the global information architecture to their advantage by legitimizing high-tech illiberalism at home while continuing to exploit the relative openness of the United States’ and other democracies’ digital environment.
The coordination and resulting synergy between China and Russia in the informational domain is likely to grow. Their expanding ties, including those related to digital influence, will provide a foundation for greater cooperation and coordination, increasing the challenges the United States and democracies globally will face. Looking forward, the United States and its democratic allies and partners should expect Beijing and Moscow to:
Deepen coordination. China and Russia already conduct a number of exchanges designed to share technologies and processes to control the internet. Beijing and Moscow could leverage their comparative strengths to pollute the global information environment while setting forth alternative platforms by which information can be disseminated.
Divide and conquer. While Russian efforts remain most intensely focused on weakening and dividing democratic societies in Europe and the United States, China is spreading the tentacles of its online influence campaigns in strategically positioned developing countries across Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. As they continue to work toward shared objectives, they will cover more ground together.
Leverage each other’s platforms to broaden reach. The proliferation of popular Chinese-designed and -marketed social media apps has the potential to create entirely alternative information ecosystems that China and Russia could jointly leverage. This already occurs in the traditional media space.
Jointly harness technological change. China and Russia are increasingly well positioned to pilot “viral” apps to collect, analyze, and generate data on users in democracies. A major area of focus for their investments in next-generation digital interference capabilities will include controlling the platforms, software, and the manner in which online activities are conducted.
The United States and its democratic allies and partners should adopt a holistic approach to countering digital influence campaigns by China and Russia, particularly in light of the growing synergies between these two powers. The increasing convergence between these actors means there are steps Western democracies can take that will be effective in pushing back against both Russia and China. In practice, this approach should comprise four primary lines of effort.
Bolster Resilience to Digital Influence Campaigns
- Fund targeted open source research. To address a critical knowledge gap, the National Science Foundation should ramp up funding for rigorous social science analysis of how online interference by China and Russia shapes the perceptions of citizens in democracies.
- Expand digital literacy education to adults. The U.S. Department of Education should partner with a leading information technology company to design a digital citizenship course for American adults, with participation incentivized through small tax rebates.
- Regulate the social media landscape. For example, Congress should enact legislation mandating that social media companies label content disseminated by state-sponsored actors.
Expand Coordination among Democracies
- Red team China-Russia synergies. This would involve convening officials and technologists from the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia to explore future digital influence coordination between the world’s two leading authoritarian powers.
- Stress-test existing coordination structures. The Group of Seven’s (G7) Rapid Response Mechanism should conduct an intelligence sharing exercise to identify bottlenecks for disseminating classified information regarding Chinese and Russian influence campaigns.
- Leverage the Community of Democracies (CoD). To enable developing countries to combat authoritarian digital interference, the United States should propose a new coordination mechanism within the CoD, which has a more diverse membership than the G7.
- Act in concert within international organizations. The United States should work with its democratic allies and partners to advance an agenda in multilateral forums that delegitimizes online influence campaigns by China and Russia and mitigates their potential impact.
Construct and Sustain Healthy Information Ecosystems
- Support independent diaspora media. One step could include a partnership between the State Department and a highly credible nongovernmental organization to award grants to Chinese- and Russian-language reporters and media entrepreneurs.
- Subsidize fact-based content in regions where affordability matters most. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation should extend loans and other supports to American media companies looking to grow their presence in developing markets.
- Catalyze innovative technological solutions. This could begin with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) organizing a “Democratic Integrity Hackathon” to develop products to protect social media platforms against Chinese and Russian digital influence campaigns.2
Enhance Efforts to Deter China and Russia
- Develop a menu for cost imposition. The United States and its democratic allies and partners should develop a robust set of options to impose costs on China and Russia, with the aim of deterring the most egregious forms of digital influence campaigns. These options should range from demonstrating the ability to hold at risk the personal data of authoritarian elites to injecting fact-based information that exposes regime corruption into the online ecosystems of China or Russia.
- Establish a declaratory policy. The United States should quietly convey to China and Russia that it is willing and able to impose costs, particularly with respect to online interference that touches on election integrity.
Download the full report.
- Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “How Russia and China Undermine Democracy: Can the West Counter the Threat?” Foreign Affairs, October 2, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-02/how-russia-and-china-undermine-democracy?cid=int-lea&pgtype=hpg. ↩
- An earlier variant of this recommendation was first put forward by Kristine Lee and Karina Barbesino, “Challenging China’s Bid for App Dominance” (Center for a New American Security, January 22, 2020), https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-HTI-App-Dominance-DoSproof.pdf?mtime=20200121212333. ↩
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