China is pouring billions of dollars into efforts to reshape the global information environment and, eventually, bend the will of multiple nations to Beijing's advantage, according to a new assessment from U.S. officials.
The report, released Thursday by the State Department's Global Engagement Center, accuses the Chinese government of using a combination of tactics in a bid to create a world in which Beijing, either explicitly or implicitly, controls the flow of critical information.
China's goal is to "construct an information ecosystem in which PRC propaganda and disinformation gain traction and become dominant," the report states. "Unchecked, the PRC's [People's Republic of China's] efforts will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing's."
This is not the first time U.S. officials have warned of China's attempts to seed the information environment to the detriment of the United States and its allies.
U.S. officials said during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic that China was making greater use of social media to spread disinformation about the origins of the virus.
Just a year later, in its annual threat assessment, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Beijing would "continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China's influence … and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system."
And U.S. officials have warned repeatedly about Chinese influence campaigns aimed at fostering doubts about U.S. elections, with some raising concerns about Chinese attempts to influence the outcomes
But the new State Department report contends what U.S. officials are seeing now is different, that China's information manipulation efforts have matured beyond specific campaigns centered around a specific topic or event.
Instead, it argues that Beijing's efforts have a grander ambition.
If successful, "Beijing would develop a surgical capability to shape the information particular groups and even individuals consume," the report states. "In this possible future, the information available to publics, media, civil society, academia, and governments as they engage with the PRC would be distorted."
'Another tool to keep China down'
Chinese government officials declined to comment on details of the State Department report. But in an email to VOA, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu called the report, "just another tool to keep China down and buttress American hegemony."
"A quick look at its [the report's] summary is enough to know what it is about: heightening ideological confrontation, spreading disinformation, and smearing China's domestic and foreign policies," Liu said. "We urge the U.S. to reflect on itself, stop framing China for the so-called 'information manipulation.'"
The State Department report said its conclusions are based on publicly available information as well as "newly acquired government information."
"As the PRC has grown more confident in its power, it appears to have calculated that it can more aggressively pursue its interests," it says.
Specifically, the State Department report points to a multipronged approach combining its expansive state-run media, surveillance technologies, financial and political coercion and Chinese-language media.
The result is an information ecosystem in which bots and trolls, and even officials, amplify pro-Beijing voices while drowning out or suppressing opponents.
Yet the report cautions that China's considerable efforts have struggled, so far, to achieve the desired impact in Western and Western-leaning nations.
"When targeting democratic countries, Beijing has encountered major setbacks, often due to pushback from local media and civil society," the report states. "Although backed by unprecedented resources, the PRC's propaganda and censorship have, to date, yielded mixed results."
That assessment tracks with conclusions from Meta, the social media company behind Facebook and Instagram, which in August announced the takedown of a Chinese-linked disinformation operation known as Spamouflage.
Meta said that while Spamouflage was "the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation in the world," Beijing got little bang for its buck.
"Despite the very large number of accounts and platforms it used, Spamouflage consistently struggled to reach beyond its own (fake) echo chamber," Meta said. "Only a few instances have been reported when Spamouflage content on Twitter and YouTube was amplified by real-world influencers."
'Good wake-up call'
Some researchers say that Beijing has made some inroads in the West.
"China's most successful influence efforts have always been smaller in scale and more targeted, like the effort to harass dissidents and critics," Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, told VOA via email.
Schafer further described Spamouflage as a "good wake-up call."
"It reminded the world that China is investing time and resources to manipulate the information environment," he said.
And there are indications that China has become more sophisticated.
A report earlier this month from Microsoft suggests that Chinese disinformation efforts successfully used artificial intelligence to produce "eye-catching content."
"This relatively high-quality visual content has already drawn higher levels of engagement from authentic social media users," Microsoft said in its report. "Users have more frequently reposted these visuals, despite common indicators of AI-generation."
Such use of artificial intelligence has U.S. intelligence officials especially concerned.
"Russia, China, others are going to try to use this technology," General Paul Nakasone told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday, when asked about AI and the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Nakasone heads U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.
Others at the NSA see China gaining ground and influence, and preparing to wield that influence if necessary.
"They have growing leverage in the global social media environment," said David Frederick, the NSA's assistant deputy director for China, during a webinar earlier this month."That could enable them to conduct very broad information operations at a very large scale in the case of conflict."