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We must contain the lie machine

Updated:2021-05-12 10:24:45   China Daily


Social media has become a channel for propaganda and an instrument of political destabilization

The creation of mass media has enhanced the effects of lying and manipulation. In the 1930s, media such as daily newspapers, cinema and radio were widely used by several countries' governments to mobilize their population for their political goals. This activity was pushed with the latest knowledge of social psychology, sociology, statistics, and semiotics. In Germany, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels explored all possibilities created by this knowledge to target the objectives of domination through propaganda.

During the Cold War, the United States used mass media to push anti-communist propaganda that sought to demonize socialist governments like the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries and all the Third World's national-democratic movements. Since then, international news has been filtered through agencies who work in line with their home country's intelligence community.

McCarthyism sought to eliminate from US culture and media any positive reference associated with communism and used a lot the media manipulation. Hollywood films, for example, created negative stereotypes of Russians, Chinese and Cubans, among others, and went so far as to portray socialist countries as being eternally bleak, suppressing sunny days in scenes depicting these countries. The development of filming techniques enabled the construction of credible, albeit false, narratives.

The ability to manipulate society through control of the media has reached a new level with the emergence of social media and the availability of relatively cheap audio and video recording equipment. It is interesting to note that such social networks are controlled by a handful of companies that work closely with the US government. The revelations of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange reveal the intricate surveillance schemes organized by the information community in conjunction with telecommunications and big technology companies.

Social networks are being used on a large scale as instruments of political destabilization, propaganda and social control. We saw this in the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Myanmar, Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, Brazil and China's Hong Kong special administrative region. The speed with which lies and prejudices are spread via social media is impressive. The Brexit referendum, the creation of far-right communities such as Q-Anon, demonstrate propaganda's corrosive power through new technologies.

We are currently following the creation of false narratives by Western governments and media groups to demonize the People's Republic of China on issues related to the novel coronavirus, the Hong Kong political process, technology and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Specifically, concerning Xinjiang, a false tale has been constructed that the central government is sponsoring a "genocide" against the Uygur ethnic group and that millions of Muslim people are being confined in "concentration camps" and used as "forced labor". These lies, like others, are like a house of cards, but when the lie is repeated a thousand times, it ends up confusing public opinion.

This narrative disregards the activism of radical groups that sought, based on another false tale that of an "independent Turkistan", to separate China's region by violent means. There have been countless incidents involving bomb or knife attacks by members of these radical groups. It is worth remembering that this extreme "wave "spread in Central Asia after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, causing great turmoil, such as the Chechnya and Dagestan wars and, subsequently, with the profusion of radical Sunni groups after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001. It is in this context, the Shanghai Organization for Cooperation has emerged, aiming to guarantee political stability in Central Asia and combat extremist Islamic groups.

China's approach to dealing with extremism differs significantly from that adopted by the US and its allies, namely the so-called war on terror, which has led to the destruction of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and the deaths or exiles of millions of civilians. In China's case, the strategy involves re-education and professional skills training for part of the population to create new opportunities, something far different from the "concentration camps" and "forced labor" the Western media and governments have sought to portray.

The lie machine is a well-oiled cog, as is the case with false narratives involving Muslims in Xinjiang. The fake news use testimonies from supposed academics and non-governmental organizations called "independent", which have the seal of the great media groups when repeating the lies a thousand times. In fact, these actions are coordinated by the intelligence services to destabilize governments that are considered hostile. In the name of "freedom", "democracy" and "human rights", para-state entities such as the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) have a structure for regimentation and staff training, which joins private organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Albert Einstein Institution or even media groups such as the Epoch Times newspaper, linked to the Falun Gong cult.

Unfortunately, due to the strict control exercised by large Western news agencies, the false narratives are sold as if they were true. In this respect, social media tries to replicate and multiply the lies, as in the case of the alleged "genocide" in Xinjiang, the "atrocities" committed by the Syrian (or Libyan) government, the alleged lack of security of Huawei devices, and systems or still of "systemic corruption" in the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. Regarding this last aspect, between 2013 and 2018, Brazil faces mass demonstrations that look like a "colored revolution" supported by foreign forces.

The imposition of sanctions against Chinese authorities and Xinjiang's cotton production is part of a narrative that is far removed from any concern about human rights. In fact, it aims to constrain and pressure the Chinese government in a broader context of disputes, such as the trade war and competition related to 5G and artificial intelligence, fields in which China excels.

Similarly, it seeks to isolate the Chinese government by creating artificial friction with European and Asian countries that are economically integrated with China and seeks to contain the advances of the Belt and Road Initiative.

When the US is intensifying its strategy to contain China, it is important to pay attention to what the West's propaganda mill is churning out. There is a need to redouble communication efforts to face the flood of lies and manipulation skillfully dealt with increasingly sophisticated resources. We know that the first victim of war is the truth and, because of this, the issue of information warfare must be handled very skillfully.

(The author is a professor at the Sao Paulo State University (UNESP) in Brazil. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.)

Keywords:   lie machine