Note #15. Tracking Chinese and Russian DisInformation: Hamilton 2.0 Reloaded

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Commercial, Cyber, Eurasia
  • No Comments

This Note paraphrases today’s webinar from the Alliance for Security Democracy on Hamilton 2.0, a dashboard on Russian, and now Chinese, disinformation.

Expert Panelists

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, China Reporter for Axios, made introductory remarks concerning China’s coordinated disinformation campaigns.
Other attendees were:

  • Zachary Cooper, Director for the Alliance for Securing Democracy and Research Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • Laura Rosenberger, Director for the Alliance for Securing Democracy and Senior Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • Bret Schafer, Media and Disinformation Fellow for the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Overview of the Dashboard

Bret gave an overview of the Dashboard below, a platform that scrapes and processes data then converts it into a visual tracker. Hamilton 2.0 pulls in China’s Party, State and Government websites, as well as statements made at the United Nations.

Here is a snapshot of the Dashboard at this point in time:

One of the features is, Top 10 Accounts by Tweets. This measures engagement in terms of likes, retweets, shared links, and accounts mentioned in tweets. Filters on the side allow users to drill into specific accounts–individuals such as government officials and sites such as Global Research Canada (a pro-Kremlin puppet).

By adding Chinese data to Russian data, Hamilton 2.0 enables comparisons of commonalities and differences in tactics over time. Notably, the number of Twitter accounts registered to official China soared over the course of the novel coronavirus, an eight-fold increase since 2018.

Looking at the Top 10 Tweets retweeted by followed accounts, we can see authoritarians’ “fellow travelers,” witting or unwitting. Russian and Iranian tactics overlap in this space. We can investigate the extent to which tactics are coordinated.

Other areas of convergence can be analyzed by looking at media outlets most frequently retweeted. The top six right now are: The Hill (sectarian sniping is useful); Reuters; Press TV; RT, Sputnik; wikileaks; and the foreign minister of Iran.

Chinese and Russian Tactics

From this information, we can look into how Chinese and Russian disinformation is adopting new messengers, as well as how China’s activity resembles Russia’s aggressive tactics.

Similarities between Russian and Chinese tactics can be detected by a daily overview of Twitter. A key difference is that China is presenting its culture favorably in a humanitarian spin, while Russia is not presenting a positive view of itself. Russian disinformation is more outwardly negative, targeting non-Russian actors.

By using the search box, we can delve into how Chinese and Russian actors are messaging a particular topic. At the same time, we can see what the complete story looks like.

Top Three Chinese Narratives

For instance, Bret pointed out the top three narratives being pushed by these accounts, relative to the coronavirus:

  • a conspiracy theory that US military is the origin of the virus and sent it to Wuhan; Chinese actors push this narrative via fringe websites
  • trying to present China as global humanitarian actor that is filling a void in the European Union left by a non-engaged US
  • pushing back at anti-Chinese narratives elsewhere

Laura remarked that Chinese suppression of unwanted narratives and its aggressive Twitter activity to push new content and new narratives mimic a Russian pattern: the dissemination of multiple conflicting conspiracy theories. The latest add-on is that the virus originated in Italy, not the US. This tactic produces conflicting information to deflect blame from China, where the virus originated.

Zach pointed out the usefulness of the Dashboard in showing how Chinese and Russian actors message different audiences in different ways. The ability to go back in time to compare behaviors is particularly useful with respect to testing hypotheses.

We also can see changes in Chinese behavior during crises. The current spike in Chinese Twitter aggressiveness is one such change, an anomaly or pattern that reflects confidence in the ability to change narratives outside China. That China would do this in the middle of a health crisis is remarkable, and calls for further analysis.

Closing Consensus

Democracies need to have a better story to tell. Our message needs to improve. Inconsistent policies among democracies are exploited by China and Russia. Tagging tweets by countries that fund those tweeters would be useful to transparency. The coronavirus threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to handle health crises, and therefore threatens the internal political situation. The Party wants to show democracies struggle with this epidemic as well, and more so.

Thanks to the Alliance for Securing Democracy for making this tool available.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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