The tensions in the West Philippine Sea and the Taiwan straits have produced valuable insights on how disinformation campaigns are waged. This deluge of false information or ‘fake news’ has caught the ire of several Filipino public officials, causing them to denounce and label it as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘treasonous’.
To be better prepared, we need to understand how disinformation strategies are pursued. Generally, these activities must be seen as part of an elaborate campaign to push Beijing’s narrative throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The structure and resources used to promote their agenda show this. According to a 2021 study by the US-based RAND corporation, China spends USD $10 billion annually on information operations. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an elaborate cyber-information warfare structure under its Strategic Support Force. It is organized to cover 5 theatres of operations with 12 bureaus, 14 offices and numerous working groups. Several of these units are labeled as civilian organizations. Moreover, a 2017 estimate by the Foreign Policy places the size of China’s cyber army at around 50,000-100,000 personnel. This size is about 65% of the total human resource strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
To put it simply, our adversary is very serious and is in for the long haul. Thus, it is crucial for us to comprehend Beijing’s objectives and capabilities. Reactionary gestures and inflamed emotions are understandable. Nevertheless, these tend to be short-lived and often take place within short news cycles. We must recognize that our adversary treats this as a strategic campaign and will continue to sow confusion and propagate division if it is advantageous to them.
Therefore, it is extremely important to know how malign campaigns are developed and reinforced. We can do this by examining how its foreign influence operations were pursued in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as how it dealt with the COVID pandemic. These cases should provide our policy makers and security planners with valuable insights on how to counter and be more proactive in its approach against disinformation.
Understanding an adversary’s intent, goals, and techniques
The PLA has embraced the idea of informatization of wars since the early 2000s. The current idea is that modern conflicts are waged in a networked (digitally interconnected) environment. It also views artificial intelligence as the preeminent tool that can dominate cyberspace and its information environment. This is manifested in the spread of fake social media accounts, usually through bots. In addition, the proliferation of troll farms and the use of social engineering techniques (i.e. Hacking the human, surveillance, etc.) are good examples of how China is weaponizing the cyber domain.
The goals of this strategy are varied. In peacetime conditions, this can be seen in Beijing’s insistence on propagating a desired narrative and promoting its global image. However, in conflict situations, this approach is employed against an adversary for the purpose of undermining its public support, degrading its decision-making capacities, and propagate division by inundating it with false information. The term information chaos is commonly used to describe this. For instance, a study by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden claims that China interfered in the 2018 Taiwan presidential election by disseminating false stories and messages using bots and trolls through fake social media accounts. The 2019 Hong Kong protest showed this penchant for disinformation, with government-linked posts portraying the pro-democracy demonstrators as members of ISIS and cockroaches.
Uncovering vulnerabilities and developing an appropriate strategy
Given these cases, it is therefore crucial for the Philippines to develop policies and capabilities that can address these insidious schemes. However, the growing Chinese influence in the country’s political and economic spheres combined with the high degree of social media use and low digital literacy among Filipinos are formidable challenges.
A popular idea is to enact a law that will censure disinformation. However, malign actors often mislead its audience by arguing that the false claims are part of freedom of expression. This is simply unchartered territory and may take some time before Filipino legislators can get their acts together. Also, a law that governs a technology-enabled practice may simply be obsolete in a few years.
Another option is to create a shared awareness of how disinformation campaigns are waged. This can come in the form of programs aimed at capacitating vulnerable groups and citizens. A similar program for the country’s critical sectors is also desirable. This can be achieved with the cooperation of traditional media and social media companies as well as civil society organizations. In addition, the creation of trustworthy content is one of our strongest weapons against disinformation. In the case of the West Philippine Sea issue, short and accessible digital content using English, Filipino and several dialects can be developed. Another example is sponsoring school competitions aimed at encouraging students to blog and create videos that can be posted online.
Finally, we need not fight this battle alone. Assistance from the Philippines’ traditional allies and partners can strengthen the country’s ability to respond effectively. For instance, the ability to determine the disinformation attack vectors, sharing of experiences and developing new doctrine on cyber-information operations are ways that common vulnerabilities can be addressed.
In conclusion, we must all realize that disinformation is more than a nuisance or a source of annoyance. It is a deliberate campaign that aims to sow confusion and division as well as weaken our resolve. It is for this reason that we need a collective cyber defense strategy that will develop the appropriate programs and techniques on how to counter these malign influence operations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sherwin E. Ona, PhD is an associate professor and former chairperson of the department of political science and development studies of De La Salle University, Philippines. He is a senior fellow of the Philippine Public Safety College and the Stratbase-Albert Del Rosario Institute. Dr. Ona is also a module director and lecturer on cyber defense policies at the National Defense College of the Philippines. Dr. Ona is an auxiliary officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander.