At a glance.
- Rumors of a military coup in China.
- Meta takes down Russian and Chinese disinformation networks.
- Buying influence and amplification.
- Why is Russia bothering with the patently bogus referenda in the Ukrainian territory it occupies?
Rumors of a military coup in China.
Last Saturday rumors circulated widely that Chinese President Xi Jinping had been removed in a military coup, and that he was currently under arrest. The rumors were of course without foundation, but the ways in which they formed and found an audience were interesting.
The reports of Xi's removal appeared at a time of heightened political tension in Beijing, a week after a purge of Chinese officials on corruption charges, and a few weeks before the Chinese Communist Party Congress, at which Xi's continued rule is expected to be ratified. The Guardian mentions some other coincidences that may have lent superficial credibility to the rumor--reports of canceled flights, President Xi's lack of recent public appearances (he's apparently quarantining after attending a summit in Uzbekistan), the corruption arrests themselves--and notes that the coup speculation fell upon receptive ears, disposed by wishful thinking to hope they were true. "Drew Thompson, a scholar with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said a coup in China wasn’t entirely implausible, and Xi had reportedly shown concern about the prospect in the past, but the weekend’s rumours looked more like 'wishful thinking'," the Guardian reports. "They appeared to originate in accounts associated with the Falun Gong movement, which Thompson said was 'essentially not credible'.'The rumour that Xi Jinping has been arrested has legs because it is such a sensitive political moment in China, and the recent trials (and convictions) of long-serving senior officials creates a hothouse atmosphere,' [Thompson] said on Twitter."
Falun Gong has long been the object of persecution by the Chinese government, which regards them as a cult with essentially subversive tendencies.
Marc Owen Jones (an associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar) collected Twitter threads reporting rumors of a military coup in China. Many of the tweets originated in India (Nigeria ran second as a source), much of the amplification came from accounts with significantly low numbers of followers, and a great deal of them were what the kids call "sh*tposting." A number of the images tweeted that purported to be current pictures or video taken on the ground were in fact not only bogus and unrelated, but old, some of them having been appearing as misinformation about other non-coups several years ago.
The misinformation, which was easily debunked, seems to have been spread in a self-organizing rather than a centrally directed way. CyberScoop says that a "sarcastic" tweet about a coup by a German journalist who'd been reading breathless tweets about President Xi was taken up and amplified by Indian media deficient in their ability to perceive satire. India Today, for example, ran an article on September 24th whose "highlights" were:
- "BJP's Subramanian Swamy tweeted about Xi Jinping's house arrest rumours"
- "Some on social media claimed Li Qiaoming has been made China's President"
- "There has been no official confirmation of the news yet"
That is, the outlet reported a coup as unconfirmed "news," but by the 25th, BusinessToday and other outlets had persuasively debunked the false reports. But sourcing to social media is enough for misinformation to grow if it falls on receptive ground.
Meta takes down Russian and Chinese disinformation networks.
Meta, corporate parent of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, announced Tuesday that it had taken down two networks, one Russian, the other Chinese, for engaging in coordinated inauthenticity. The networks are unrelated. The Russian disinformation operation, Meta said, was unusually large, well-constructed, and focused on disseminating Russian propaganda concerning the war against Ukraine. "The Russian network — the largest of its kind we’ve disrupted since the war in Ukraine began — targeted primarily Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine and the UK with narratives focused on the war and its impact through a sprawling network of over 60 websites impersonating legitimate news organizations."
The legitimate news organizations impersonated included Spiegel and Bild in Germany, the Guardian in the UK. The impersonations were carefully and convincingly executed, and were done so at apparently considerable expense. The stories carried in them to a considerable extent concentrated on disinformation charging Ukraine with responsibility for Russian atrocities committed in Bucha and elsewhere. They were often amplified by Russian social media channels, including accounts belonging to Russian diplomatic missions, and they also engaged in pushing petitions designed as astroturf support for Russian interests. Given the amount of care, talent, and expense devoted to establishing and maintaining the inauthentic networks, it's noteworthy that the stories they pushed lacked legs: they did not achieve widespread acceptance, and they were generally dismissed soon after publication as disinformation. That experience may suggest the limitations of coordinated inauthenticity: it tends to be less successful when it seeks to persuade than when it aims simply to confuse.
The Chinese effort was smaller, and, as noted, was unrelated to the Russian campaign. Meta explained:
"We took down a small network that originated in China and targeted the United States, the Czech Republic and to a lesser extent, Chinese- and French-speaking audiences around the world. It included four largely separate and short-lived efforts, each focused on a particular audience at different times between the Fall of 2021 and mid-September 2022. In the United States, it targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum; in Czechia, this activity was primarily anti-government, criticizing the state’s support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy, using the criticism to caution against antagonizing China. Each cluster of accounts — around half a dozen each — posted content at low volumes during working hours in China rather than when their target audiences would typically be awake. Few people engaged with it and some of those who did called it out as fake."
The campaigns were different from the familiar Chinese disinformation efforts in that they didn't seek to advance any one particular line, seeking rather to darken counsel and opportunistically foster dissatisfaction in the targeted countries. The US is a perennial target of Chinese influence operations, but it's unclear what the Czechs did to attract Beijing's disapproval.
It's noteworthy that Meta credits automated systems with much of the takedown of the Chinese effort: "Our automated systems took down a number of accounts and Facebook Pages for various Community Standards violations, including impersonation and inauthenticity."
Buying influence and amplification.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) believes it's found a gang that was working to compromise accounts that could subsequently be used in influence operations. The SBU reports having taken down a gang based in Lviv that it says was responsible for compromising almost thirty-million accounts and earning roughly UAH 14 million (about $380,000) in the process. (BleepingComputer reads this as accounts belonging to thirty-million individuals.) The SBU says the hoods it took down were working for the Russians:
"The security service neutralized a hacker group that acted in the interests of the aggressor country in Lviv. Criminals hacked active accounts of Internet users from Ukraine and the European Union, gaining access to personal data of citizens. They sold this confidential information through the anonymous Darknet platform, and received money through electronic payment systems YuMoney, Qiwi, and WebMoney, which are prohibited in our country. According to preliminary data, the hackers sold approximately 30 million accounts and received a "profit" of almost UAH 14 million."
The SBU says the Russian organs were interested in the stolen accounts for their potential in spreading and amplifying disinformation. "Their 'wholesale customers' were pro-Kremlin propagandists. It was they who used the received identification data of Ukrainian and foreign citizens to spread fake 'news' from the front and create panic. The goal of such manipulations was large-scale destabilization in countries. It was also established that hacked accounts were allegedly used on behalf of ordinary people to spread disinformation about the socio-political situation in Ukraine and the EU."
A criminal investigation into the Lviv incident continues.
Why is Russia bothering with the patently bogus referenda in the Ukrainian territory it occupies?
Russian occupation authorities have devoted considerable effort to ensuring that Ukrainians who remain in Russian-occupied territory vote in plebiscites designed to approve annexation of the conquered provinces. There are widespread reports of armed troops coercing civilians into going to the polling places, and of pressuring them into voting for accession to Russia, the Washington Post and others write. The point of this is in part no doubt designed to provide a justification, mostly for a Russian domestic audience, of further escalation as Ukraine continues to retake ground. But a more important goal is informational. Forced, transparently illegitimate elections were one of the characteristic features of Stalinist rule in the old Soviet Union, and the coercion was a feature, not a bug.
Kristo Nurmis, a research fellow at Estonia's Tallinn University, explains the historical precedent in a long Twitter thread. The voting in occupied Ukraine resembles similar elections the Soviets staged in conquered nations at the beginning of the Second World War, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact enabled the Soviet Union to take the Baltic States and much of Eastern Poland:
"The 1939/40 elections were neither about faking democracy nor appealing to legality. Reading the newspapers of the time, one immediately notices that the Soviets hardly concealed the undemocratic and illegal nature of the elections – stuff that diplomats could easily pick up. Soviet intimidation was public and blatant. 'Let’s not be the enemies of the people,' Latvian paper Rīts wrote. 'Anyone who abstains from voting today and tomorrow is unquestionably an enemy of the people… backsliders and cowards will not be able to halt history.' In other words, what mattered to the Soviets was not catering to western public opinion but making the people participate, to establish Soviet 'legitimacy' on the ground. Evidently, this legitimacy had nothing to do with the liberal notion of the consent of the governed."
The Russian government, while not in any meaningful, ideological sense Soviet, retains many of the habits of mind and the policy dispositions formed under decades of Stalinist rule. What's going on is not an attempt to convince people that a stolen election is in fact a fairly conducted one, as if Mr. Putin were merely an old Chicago machine alderman working on a grander, more ruthless scale. Instead it's a characteristically totalitarian exercise in expunging false consciousness.
"Putin does share some of the Soviet notions of the plasticity of the human mind and the struggle over people's “correct consciousness. Putin’s logic is the following: the people of Ukraine have been corrupted by decades of liberal and nationalist propaganda, western-imposed false consciousness that has blinded them of their true and historically predetermined interests – joining Mother Russia. The Soviets called their ideological indoctrination effort 'ideo-political upbringing' or ideino-politicheskoye vospitanie, 'vospitanie' implying a quasi-violent parental authority over the 'immature' society (mainly the peasant mass and the unenlightened workers)."
The point isn't deception. It's discipline. And from a disciplinary point-of-view, the more implausible the claim you can force people to mouth, the better.