How disinformation is jeopardizing political activism


From the Mongolian Jin emperors to British-ruled India, ‘Divide and conquer’ is a political technique that sovereigns have been using since the dawn of civilization. Nowadays, governments use a version of the same technique when they spread disinformation online,  dividing public opinion to prevent consensus that could challenge their sovereignty. 

In China, for example, the Chinese Communist Party employs people to post pro-government propaganda and spread disinformation. They are known as wumao, the 50-centers - a reference to how much they were supposedly paid per post in the beginning. Now, the term is used more in general to define Chinese communist party supporters compensated for how they enthusiastically defend the party online while advancing its disinformation campaigns.

Their capability to build a parallel universe of alternative facts shone through the recent mass Hong Kong protest. “The Hong kong demonstrators are backed by the CIA”, “the police are being attacked by violent activists,” or “the demonstrators blinded the nurse,” were very common pieces of misinformation used by the Chinese government.

Chinese disinformation aimed to portray the protestors as violent extremists, often comparing them to terrorist groups such as ISIS. The aim was evidently to discredit the movement and to undermine public support for the protest. The Chinese government denied any involvement and said the world should hear their version too.

Yet, this type of state-backed online behavior goes beyond undermining activism and has already been seen in action in Taiwan. Since the Chinese disinformation campaigns are closely aligned with its one-China policy, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) pointed out that China has already started to test the waters in Taiwan’s 2018 regional election and successfully meddled the outcomes. As the next presidential and legislative election approaches, the Taiwanese society is alarmed by the scale and the capabilities of Chinese disinformation through the Chinese-invested media as well as various social media platforms.   

How do you spot disinformation? Here’s a checklist:

  • Check the poster’s social media account for authenticity 

    • Number of friends

    • Types of posts or comments

    • Amount of posting and reshares 

    • Usually, accounts created to disinform lack personal information

In general, social disinformation agents have very few friends and a high number of reshares.

From the Arabic Spring to the latest Hong Kong protest, social media played an important role in their success. Activism, in all forms, pushes our society forward. But technology is a double-bladed sword, we witnessed recently the capacity of disinformation to sway public opinions based on falsehood at an alarming rate. Activism is the fuel of democracy, besides pushing for policy adaptation when facing disinformation, it is up to us individuals to defend the fragility of democracy.

Header image credit: Joseph Chan 

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