Information operations is closely related to psychological warfare. The purpose is to use information to manipulate the adversary’s perception without their awareness and compel them to make decisions that are to the originator’s advantage.
In order to improve efficiency and effectiveness, both offensive and defensive sides of the information warfare employ modern information and communications technologies extensively.
We can look at China’s disinformation campaign and audacious cyberattack against Western countries in this context.
In order to cope with fake news, democracies such as Taiwan and the US have spent vast amount of monetary resources, with even higher and impossible-to-estimate social costs.
Yet the response so far is mostly futile. After debunking one piece of fake news, 10 more pop up, which inevitably leads to an endless game of Whac-A-Mole.
The effect of this will make the public wary and unable to discern truth from fiction.
What is more, the act of spreading false information is mostly legal in democracies, protected by freedom of speech. It is therefore exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for democratic governments to mitigate the spread of disinformation.
Most Chinese living outside of China seldom read Western news, as they all use WeChat, receive their news feeds primarily from social media sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and continue to be indoctrinated by its propaganda.
To correct it is a formidable undertaking. That is why a new information operations strategy is needed.
Because the autocratic CCP and dictatorial Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) have no legitimacy nor mandate to govern China, and due to its extreme concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small number of elites, Beijing is afraid of what the truth might reveal to its people, as the veracity may weaken the hold of the communist regime.
In 2013, Beijing-sponsored hackers attacked the New York Times’ computer systems over the course of four months, apparently in retaliation for a series of stories that the paper ran exposing vast wealth accumulated by the family of then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
To prevent outside information from leaking into China, in addition to setting up the “Great Firewall” to block Western Web sites, the CCP also established the Cyber Police force to monitor content and punish those who violate the CCP’s suppressive rules.
Beijing also employs hundreds of thousands of Fifty-Cent Party members to fabricate their version of gospel to shift public opinion on social media in favor of the CCP inside the Firewall.
The purpose is nothing less than obfuscating the truth and brainwashing Chinese, lest the truth endanger the regime.
This is truly the Orwellian prophecy fulfilled in the 21st century.
China’s ancient proverb, “water can carry the boat and also overturn the boat,” serves as a constant reminder that leaders were kept afloat by the populous that supported them. If the people were dissatisfied, they could easily overthrow the leader.
The US should exploit this weakness in the information domain to turn the tables. Thus, the US should employ an asymmetric information warfare strategy, using modern technologies to deliver the truth directly to the hands of Chinese.
In information operations, increasing the cost of those who disseminate disinformation can be done with symmetrical or asymmetrical strategies. The military competition and trade war between the US and China are symmetrical; US investment in Voice of America and Taiwan on Radio Taiwan International in an attempt to deliver the truth to Chinese is also a symmetrical strategy, albeit with limited results.
To gain a lead in the information warfare against China, the US and it friends should engage in asymmetric information warfare based on modern technologies that hire only a few dozens of information warriors and cost much less, but can deliver potentially devastating results to the CCP.
If countries in the free world can join forces to penetrate the Great Firewall and deliver “real news,” the wall will crumble in time — not only because of the content, but also because the image that CCP is invincible and impenetrable will be shattered.
The consequence could be a regime change in China.
In recent years, Social Media Management (SMM) technology providers, such as Hootsuite, Hubspot, Sprout Social, and Sprinklr, have been booming in the West. This category of software tools can preconfigure advertising campaign series, suggest precise launch times, and release multiple coordinated messages to social media platforms, Web sites and other digital channels.
The SMM can also categorize the background of targeted audiences based on demographics and deliver tailored messages to their personal devices, whether it is cell phones, computers or other smart devices, to maximize the effect of advert campaigns.
There are quite a few social media platforms in China, such as Zhihu (the Chinese equivalent of Quora), Douban (their IMDB or Flixter), Youku (their YouTube), and Sina Weibo (their Facebook). China’s many social media platforms can be used as a perfect battleground for information operations.
Although most of their social media platforms require personal identification information to register, a few of them allow users to post in-depth articles for the middle-class audience without real IDs. The audio and video of TikTok (SHAREit and MX Player equivalent) and Youku, much enjoyed by the younger generation, are less subject to real-time surveillance by the Cyber Police because the technology to comprehend audio and visual information has not arrived.
As for QQ (their WhatsApp), WeChat (their most ubiquitous social media app), and other platforms that require real identification, hacking techniques can be employed to disseminate Western news about the CCP behind the Great Firewall.
As Chinese social media apps generally require legitimate identification to register, there is a need to come up with innovative methods to obtain such data to create accounts that the US can control.
There are many hacking techniques that can be used to obtain the personal information of Chinese.
For example, the US can reverse-engineer popular mobile phone apps (such as games and pornography), insert segments of spyware into the original code, and recompile it into new APK format for Android phone users to download without going through the official Google Play store.
Similar techniques can be developed for iPhone apps without Apple’s App Store.
After users in China execute these re-engineered mobile apps, US intelligence can acquire their personal data and use it to create new accounts on social media in China.
As most Chinese use cell phones to make purchases, their legitimate personal data must exist on the phone, which makes the pilfering task relatively straightforward.
An important part of the equation is to intercept verification code sent via text messages as part of the new account registration process.
Commercially available mobile phone apps can be cheaply acquired to accomplish the task, although developing apps in-house is preferred for uninterrupted, clandestine operations.
In January, the US Army banned soldiers from using the popular Chinese social media app TikTok, which, according to Pentagon’s guidance, is a security threat.
According to the Financial Express, many cell phone apps originated from China and available on Apple App Store and Google Play are designed and coded to steal personal information without the user’s knowledge.
Though this author did not verify the validity of the report, given the US Army’s decree on TikTok, it seems likely that a substantial number of smartphone apps from China have security issues, deliberate or otherwise.
As China has been playing the game for years, the US should reciprocate to gain the upper hand.
After the US owns and controls some Chinese social media accounts, automatic scripts can be used to collect a large amount of user information on social media platforms, and classify them by, for example, personal interests, shopping habits, location, circle of friends, etc.
The purpose of this is to use the SMM technology to disseminate tailored messages to different groups.
For example, the younger generations might prefer video content; older generations might enjoy reading in-depth reviews more; and rural users might prefer pictures with large captions.
Tailoring the messages can maximize the effect of perception manipulation.
Again, the SMM technology can configure the messaging parameters, and streamline the whole process automatically and effectively.
Sovereign democracies such as the US and Taiwan are entitled to defend themselves and launch effective counterattacks in the information sphere. The strategy outlined above entails two elements: technologies and content. While the US can develop the technologies, it might have to rely on friendly countries familiar with Chinese culture, such as Taiwan, to develop content.
Because of the CCP’s paramount fear of truth and the country’s ubiquitous social media presence, defeating China in its own game of information warfare is attainable.
As long as the right information operations strategy is used, we can achieve the objective of introducing “real news” into China’s oppressed society.
Such operations might not only deter China from attacking the West, but also potentially induce regime change.
After all, the truth will set them free.
Holmes Liao has more than 35 years of professional experience in the US aerospace industry and served as an adjunct distinguished lecturer at Taiwan’s National Defense University from 1999 to 2004.
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