During a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Indo Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) commander Adm. Phillip Davidson said “China has a vast disinformation machine” with a million people behind it that it uses to undermine the U.S.
Responding to questions by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) about the threat Chinese disinformation presents in the Indo-Pacific region, Davidson said, “They use regular media and social media and have nearly a million people in their propaganda machine.”
Davidson said the goal of China’s disinformation efforts is “to undermine U.S. interests, to capture the narrative to their own benefit and to … corrupt the environment in a way that creates doubt amongst our allies and partners in the reliability of the United States.”
In his assessment, Davidson said China’s disinformation efforts differ from those used by Russia in the Indo-Pacific region. While he said China acts to sow doubt, Davidson said Russia instead “acts much more like a spoiler.” Instead of putting forward its own vision or propaganda narrative, Davidson said Russia looks to “deny the visions” of other nations in the region.
He said INDOPACOM is “engaged deeply” with the U.S. State Department to improve U.S. messaging in the region to reinforce U.S. interests and “as opposed to providing disinformation, would highlight the ills that others have in the region.”
“Disinformation is part of the new geostrategic fabric that is making the competition so difficult,” Davidson said.
Davidson said the U.S. should increase its messaging efforts “across the globe” and noted the State Department had “immense power” during the Cold War era in promoting “truth” and countering disinformation efforts.
Concerns about Chinese disinformation efforts have increased in the last year amid the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. An April 2020 analysis by the Information Analysis Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union’s diplomatic and combined foreign and defense ministry, found Russia and China have promoted similar disinformation narratives about the origins of COVID-19 and have sought to “exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by directly challenging the credibility of the European Union and its partners.”
Chinese disinformation efforts have sought to deny COVID-19 originated in China and even claim that the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan, where the first virus cases emerged.
China also recently circulated doctored images depicting an Australian soldier slitting an Afghan child’s throat, to further allegations of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. One of the war crimes claims was that Australian soldiers did slit the throats of two 14-year-old Afghan boys, but an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims. Separately, Australian investigators did find “credible information” supporting claims 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.