Responding to Chinese and Russian Disinformation
July 29, 2020
The State Department has been active in refuting Chinese and Russian disinformation, with China increasingly adopting elements of Russia’s disinformation playbook. But simply issuing tougher statements, cautions Paul Saunders, will not be enough to revive global approval of US leadership.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated competition among the United States, China and Russia to define master narratives in international affairs. While initially most intense surrounding the origins of the coronavirus outbreak and the effectiveness of each nation’s responses to it, this competition has since expanded to other discrete issues—such as China’s efforts to solidify its control over Hong Kong and racial tensions in the United States—as well as broader matters like America’s purported decline. Much as it has done at times of domestic political controversy, the Trump administration has adopted an unapologetically offensive public posture in responding to China’s messaging, including regular high-level statements.
Perhaps due to President Trump’s interest in negotiating with Russia, US responses to Moscow’s public diplomacy and disinformation seem more targeted. Whether either effort will succeed remains to be seen.
After a long post–Cold War holiday, Russia’s disinformation reemerged as a significant political and policy issue during and after the 2016 presidential election cycle. Indeed, the National Intelligence Council’s January 2017 assessment of Russia’s election interference devoted more space to an annex about Russia’s foreign propaganda channel RT than to its formal report. Then as now RT’s messages have often focused on reports of social tension inside the United States and economic problems to portray America as a nation in crisis.
For example, a July 2020 RT story asserts—on the basis of an interview with a single professor, whose affiliation is unspecified—that “Washington’s aggressive policies against China” are “an unthinkable additional burden on the American economy.” The article does not provide any analysis or statistics to buttress this claim.
For its part, China has only more recently abandoned its previous low-profile public diplomacy in favor of a more vigorous and visible approach that explicitly targets the United States. Indeed, some American experts see China as increasingly adopting elements of Russia’s disinformation “playbook,” including using both official and fake social media accounts to spread false or exaggerated reporting. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, this included promoting conspiracy theories that the virus had originated in the United States rather than in China.
Interestingly, Chinese media organizations also redistribute Russian-generated content, especially when it praises China’s conduct. According to a State Department official, Russia’s state news agency Sputnik has formal agreements to exchange content and even personnel with Chinese media agencies.
The Department of State
As the lead agency responsible for America’s international image, the US Department of State has been quite active in refuting Chinese and Russian disinformation. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center—which the Obama administration originally created in 2016 to fight the Islamic State’s online recruiting and propaganda—has become one of the principal bureaucratic vehicles for this effort, using online data and tools to identify, share, and combat foreign disinformation campaigns and to help other parts of the US government in this task.
Caught up in political disputes surrounding Russia’s 2016 election interference, the Global Engagement Center was not an early priority for the Trump administration, though it has since received greater support from the Congress and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The State Department has also promoted Trump administration narratives, as in widely publicized efforts to highlight China’s responsibility for the pandemic by calling it the “Wuhan virus” and the “Chinese virus” during the outbreak’s initial months, something President Trump also did personally.
The State Department has likewise released frequent fact sheets extolling US leadership in the global response to the virus that have listed financial assistance to governments and international organizations, and, in Russia’s case, a statement signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commemorating the 80th anniversary of the US refusal to recognize the Soviet Union’s incorporation of the Baltic States in 1940 and reiterating America’s rejection of Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine and its occupation of Crimea and Georgia’s regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Indeed, Secretary Pompeo has been especially vocal in framing China’s nature and conduct; most notably, when discussing China, he systematically refers to “the Chinese Communist Party” rather than China or, for that matter, the People’s Republic of China. Since Pompeo has simultaneously gone out of his way to praise China’s people—see, for example, his recent remarks at the Richard Nixon Library, which he concludes in part by saying “may God bless the Chinese people”—this seems to reflect a Cold War–style effort to divide China’s ruling regime from its citizens.
Several considerations are important in assessing how likely such measures are to succeed, but two stand out.
The first is the intended audience for US messages. Secretary Pompeo’s tough statements about China at times seem directed more at US domestic audiences than at China, US allies, or other governments around the world. These messages may succeed to a greater or lesser extent in building Republican support for the administration’s China policy—and for Secretary Pompeo personally—but their harsh language seems less likely to persuade Beijing to change its behavior or to rally international support for Washington and its aims. Few governments seem eager to choose a clear or permanent side in a long-term US-China confrontation; moreover, as such rhetoric may make America’s goals appear more extreme, it is likely to discourage others from supporting Washington, especially in visible ways.
Within China, trying to separate China’s people from its government seems unlikely to work unless China’s citizens are broadly comfortable with other aspects of US policy, especially policies that may be highly salient to them, like America’s position on US-China trade and on China’s territorial claims. Looking for political support inside China while pursuing a trade war and opposing what many in China see as a combination of historical right and future destiny appears fruitless.
The second is America’s credibility as a messenger. Here, the United States is most effective when it appears more-or-less unified, capable, and successful, including economically and socially. In other words, as many have argued, America needs to get its own house in order if it is to compete effectively with Beijing and Moscow in the global information space or in other domains. From this perspective, America’s current domestic challenges limit its ability to compete, though only for the time being, and not indefinitely. Indeed, to the extent that China’s increasingly assertive behavior helps to unite US elites around long-term competition—a process that is already well underway—Beijing may be forging the United States into a tougher competitor.
A similar view holds that “actions speak louder than words,” that is, that observers will generally give more weight to US conduct than to senior officials’ speeches and formal press statements. This suggests that America’s efforts to buttress its international image and promote US messages are most effective when statements and policy are mutually consistent and—if the goal is to win Washington greater sympathy—when they are at least somewhat appealing to international audiences, especially in priority countries or regions.
Simply writing better (or tougher) press releases, or distributing more of them, is much less likely to produce positive results. With global approval of US leadership trailing disapproval by nine percentage points in a new Gallup poll that shows 42% disapproval and just 33% approval, the US government is not in a strong position to combat Chinese and Russian disinformation.