Borrowing a Boat Out to Sea
The Chinese Military's Use of Social Media for Influence Operations
Published in: Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University website (2019)
Posted on RAND.org on May 14, 2021
The Chinese military, known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA), is positioning itself as one of the leading actors for hostile Chinese influence operations on social media. It is already reported to be surreptitiously using Facebook and other platforms to undermine the democratic process in foreign countries, including Taiwan, and recent developments indicate the United States could be next.
The PLA uses social media not just for overt influence operations, such as external propaganda via PLA Daily and Xinhua to achieve narrative dominance as well as psychological warfare for deterrence purposes, but also conducts covert hostile political interference operations targeting foreign countries. Military technical writings on "cognitive domain operations" [renzhiyu zuozhan, 认知域作战] explain that the PLA is developing technologies for subliminal messaging, deep fakes, overt propaganda, and public sentiment analysis on Facebook, Twitter, LINE, and other platforms. Other articles also suggest that the PLA could blackmail or tarnish the reputation of politicians as well as coopt individual influential civilian social media users to extend the reach of Chinese propaganda while obfuscating its Party origins. Since the Chinese military does not see a clear distinction between peacetime and wartime, it is possible that it will employ these active interference efforts whenever China feels its interests are sufficiently threatened.
As the PLA seeks to expand the reach of its influence operations around the world and continues its overt propaganda campaign to influence the global conversation about China and future PLA operations abroad, there is substantial evidence the PLA is considering the opening of social media accounts on Western platforms, most likely Twitter. PLA researchers refer to exploiting existing channels to reach previously untapped audiences, such as using Western social media platforms, as "borrowing a boat out to sea" [jiechuan chuhai, 借船出海], which is a long-standing Chinese government strategy to exploit foreign media to deliver Chinese propaganda. This report argues that consideration should be given to the national security risks involved in the PLA's holding accounts on Western social media platforms, which could enable the PLA to gather more analytic data on individual users to enhance future political interference operations, for example with improved targeting of tailored messages.
As the awareness and debate over Chinese influence operations targeting Western democracies grow, it is critical for the U.S. government and the wider policy community to understand how the Chinese military views social media as a tool for influence and broader information operations at home and abroad. This report argues that the PLA should be recognized as another key driver of these efforts.