In a recent study published in the American Political Science Review, academics from Harvard, Stanford, and UC San Diego estimated that the Chinese government employs hundreds of thousands of people to pose as ordinary users and post 448 million comments on social media a year. The study argues that the point of producing and planting this many fraudulent ‘opinions’ is not to create alternative facts or to settle debates but, rather, to distract actual users of the internet away from controversial matters that might reflect poorly on the government. The strategy employed is one that simply aims to change the subject, deflecting debate towards more anodyne discussions of China’s revolutionary history and the achievements of the Community Party. Online discourse is shifted by simply not engaging with critics and dissidents, and by constantly attempting to bolster feelings of national pride.
That the Chinese government is engaged in manipulating public opinion on a large scale should come as no surprise. The country has a history of policing the internet in order to regulate and control the flow of information within and across its borders, and its use of information technologies to propagate sanctioned official narratives while stifling dissenting voices is little more than an extension of the forms of censorship that have long been employed by the government. Whatever the initial promise of the internet may have been, associated as it was with visions of a borderless world in which information would be freely and transparently available to all, the reality is that local contexts and laws have, rightly or wrongly, always shaped access to the internet, and that it is subject to the same forms of state power that shape society.
That states would seek to regulate and control the internet is to be expected. That they would succeed in doing so, some more successfully than others, was also inevitable; the internet is ultimately tethered to the physical infrastructure that provides access to it, and states generally have the authority, resources, and time required to control this. What is more problematic, and only likely to get worse, is the increasingly insidious manner in which the internet is being weaponised to distort the public discourse. A decade ago, the battle over access to information on the internet was largely framed in terms of traditional ideas of censorship, with states seeking to prevent access through blatant and clumsy blocks on content that were easily identified and circumvented. Now, while such attempts at censorship continue, the focus has shifted towards exploiting the speed and flexibility of the internet to disseminate information and propaganda aimed at marginalizing critical voices and buttressing state power. Seeing that they cannot stem the flow of information, states have simply decided to contaminate it.
The problem is not simply that there is a proliferation of ‘fake news’, although it is interesting to see how the President of the United States, arguably one of the world’s greatest purveyors of questionable ‘facts’, continuously uses that epithet to insulate himself from his critics while building an alternate political and social reality for his supporters. Rather, what is truly insidious is how the very banality of the tactics employed by many states to deflect and distort public opinion makes it so difficult to distinguish fact from fiction; instead of press releases (which, incidentally, continue to be one of the principal mechanisms through which governments influence discussion), official narratives are parroted and reinforced by an army of seemingly normal citizens on social media who just happen to participate in online debates. Government’s spokespersons may inspire suspicion, but it is difficult to be wary of the random young man on the internet whose profile says he is studying in a college in a small town, wants to become an accountant, and posts pictures of himself and his friends as well as patriotic slogans and symbols of national pride.
In a sense, social media has made propaganda and misinformation faceless, with obvious instruments of state power being replaced by a multitude of seemingly individual actors engaging in the free exchange of ideas and opinions. It is also this facelessness that makes this new form of state censorship so dangerous; if the agents of misinformation cannot be identified or traced back to their masters, and if they can and do manipulate public debate in a substantive way (and there is considerable evidence to suggest this is, indeed, the case), then they essentially act as an extension of state power that cannot even be clearly discerned, let alone regulated or held accountable.
As it is, the rules governing how states monitor and influence the internet are opaque at best, shrouded in secrecy and barely discussed by the broader public. The vast majority of internet users are probably unaware of the extent to which their activities can be tracked by state and corporate interests, and are possibly equally oblivious to just how involved the state can be in disseminating much of the information that they consume. Pakistan is no exception in this regard; there have long been suggestions that the state employs tactics similar to those used by China to shape debate on social media , and it is easy to see how this, coupled with more obviously draconian forms of censorship and outright intimidation, can stifle free expression and dissent. Similarly, while the state has expanded its ability to legally monitor and police internet usage in the country through legislation like the Cybercrime Bill, there has been little movement in the opposite direction. If the Pakistani state does indeed operate ‘troll farms’ producing content showing up on Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds across the country, there is little understanding and less discussion of the implications of this for democracy and state power.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.