New methods of information operations, in the form of interference campaigns and disinformation, outline China’s shift toward adopting the principle of “discourse power.” China’s traditional foreign policy of “non-intervention” into foreign nations is no longer viable, as it has envisioned a different world order with itself ascending to the central role. Discourse power is the concept that a country can attain increased geopolitical power by setting agendas internationally through influencing the political order and values both domestically and in foreign countries. The information space offers China an effective alternative to its prior “non-intervention” stance by allowing the country to project the “China Story”—i.e., to project the positive image through storytelling in the media landscape, both domestic and abroad. Information perception tactics such as the removal, suppression, and downplay of negative information, as well as gamification of certain hashtags, are tools with which China intends to convince foreign audiences that it is “a responsible world leader” and leading power in reforming the international political system.
This study examined the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) use of both Mandarin-language and Western social media platforms as tools for discourse power projection. The DFRLab found China to be effective on Mandarin-language sites that target both Chinese citizens and the Chinese diaspora, employing the use of strict censorship and favorable CCP messaging prioritization. On the other hand, while attempting to engage foreign actors through Western social media platforms, the information operations found to date have resulted in ineffective influence, relied on outsourcing the operation to third parties, and utilized “astroturfing” and “sock puppets.”
The next frontier for Chinese discourse power is in big data and artificial intelligence (AI), as signified by the high volume of mentions of these terms in the People’s Liberation Army’s official journal. Meanwhile, Chinese companies Tik Tok, Baidu, and Douyin have investigated the possibility of making deep fakes available to the consumer on their apps, pointing to a near future when these tools can be deployed as a part of information operations. The DFRLab assesses that AI will be used to employ effective, large-scale disinformation campaigns and to covertly run authentic Western social media accounts.
By its own estimation, China’s “peaceful” ascent with the use of discourse power will prove successful when it has rewritten international norms, values, and ethics, as well as changed the structure of the global political system, forcing other nations to accept and adjust to China’s new disposition. With increasing technological developments, discourse power as a concept will be increasingly realized—especially through targeted information operations—as China advances its geopolitical goals and increases its international power.