Think tank: China's tech giants refine and define Beijing's propaganda push

Taking down TikTok won't stop the CCP's attempt to control global narratives

Chinese tech companies that serve as important links in the world's digital supply chains are helping Beijing to execute and refine its propaganda strategy, according to an Australian think tank.

"The Chinese Communist Party seeks to harvest user data from globally popular Chinese apps, games and online platforms, to 'gauge the pulse of public opinion', gain insight into societal trends and preferences, and thereby improve its propaganda," warned the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in a Thursday post announcing the launch of research titled "Truth and reality with Chinese characteristics."

The authors reached that conclusion by mapping links between the CCP, state-owned or controlled propaganda entities, and their data-collection activities. Investments in Chinese businesses – some of which operate globally and whose data the CCP can access thanks to unique data storage laws – was also considered .

The report concludes that globally recognized Chinese tech brands – like rideshare operator Didi Chuxing and e-tailer Temu – enable Beijing to learn about consumer habits, societal characteristics of nations in which they operate, and even how people in different places make decisions.

Beijing therefore relies on Chinese tech providers as a "foundational layer for the future of information and data exchange worldwide."

In the research, ASPI also alleges that Beijing invests in emerging tech – including generative AI, mobile gaming and immersive technologies – to establish and maintain control of China's desired narrative and seek "greater control, if not dominance, over the global information ecosystem."

"Generative AI is understood specifically as a next-generation technology changing the landscape of political communication," explained the think tank, citing the passing of the Internet Information Service Deep Synthesis Management Provisions law on November 25, 2022 as proof of China's intentions to weaponize it. Mobile gaming, R&D immersive technologies such as AR and VR, and the metaverse were also named as technologies rife for social manipulation.

Beijing has already experimented with gamifying propaganda digitally for the Chinese population, including through the use of the metaverse. It also shields its population from outside influence through the banning of entities like Facebook, VPNs and video games.

Such parallels obviously put a focus on the recent controversy surrounding attempts to have TikTok divested or banned from the United States.

However, ASPI concludes that "by dealing with only one platform at a time, policymakers fail to grasp the broader significance of the global technological changes that China's increasing investment in key information technologies is having."

Among the think tank's recommendations are that governments pressure technology industry players to examine their digital supply chains – especially when involved in government procurement.

It also suggests lawmakers define machine learning and cloud data as surveillance or dual-use goods – much in the way the EU has in its Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI.

Establishing standardization of data storage before Beijing gets a chance to define global norms would also be helpful, according to ASPI.

"Such efforts can reduce opportunities for authoritarian regimes to collect, use and misuse data in ways that harm ethnic communities, disparage and denigrate alternative perspectives and silence dissent in the global information environment," suggested the Institute.

While ASPI's overall picture can be alarming, other think tanks have argued Beijing is, quite frankly, not that organized.

A February analysis from the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Exovera – an AI-centric provider and subsidiary of defense contractor SOS International – argued that on the domestic level bureaucracy and inefficiencies have frustrated attempts to control public opinion and enforce censorship.

Which must lead one to question whether Beijing can pull off such a feat on a global scale. ®

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