A Tricky Cyber War Against Clean Energy (Part 2)

The Art Of Deception (Continued From Part 1)

In not only The Art of War, but in other ancient texts and stories, the idea of ​​using trickery and strategy to beat stronger enemies with more resources is common. Things like the Empty Fort Strategy, using straw men on fake boats to rob the enemy of their arrows, and legends of people like Cao Cao are all too much to get into here, but they show a rich history and canon of legendary stories centered around the creative use of deception to turn the tables.

So, like the romance scammers, the idea of ​​using online deception is something a modern country would be foolish to not try to capitalize on.

The 50-Cent Army

Before I get into China’s internet disinformation efforts, I do want to be perfectly fair. “Astroturfing” online is very common, both for commercial and political reasons, worldwide. Democratic and very undemocratic countries alike have military units and civic efforts to manipulate public sentiment online. Wikipedia has an extensive list of such efforts, and it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. Anybody who tells you this doesn’t happen outside of China and Russia are either underinformed or lying to you.

What makes China’s efforts in this area notable isn’t the deception and misinformation as much as the scale of it. There’s somewhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000 “wumaos,” or “fifty-centers.” This term comes from the common belief that people making internet posts and comments for the Chinese government get paid .5 RMB for their time, which isn’t much. While there are full-time professionals, there are many people who do it part-time for extra money, or in addition to some other government job at any level. For example, police officers are sometimes told to each make a few online posts or tweets pushing a pro-government position.

Like any good government disinformation program, the targets are often overseas. If you can convince foreigners of something, especially in democratic countries, you can influence the behavior of foreign governments to achieve strategic goals. While in-person operations (detailed here, after the closure of a consulate in Houston) are important, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to influence people in the United States and Canada via their smartphones.

Going online and telling lies isn’t a particularly effective strategy, because that’s not how good propaganda works. If you give people fake facts, it’s easy for them to Google it and find out that they’ve been lied to. But, if you pretend to be someone’s neighbor and express concern or emotion about something, you can affect the attitudes of the target audience through perceived peer pressure. Make thousands of posts like this, and you can convince people that they should worry about something, too.

It’s not just the familiarity of someone who you think is a citizen of your own country that sells the emotional manipulation, but the repetition that drives it home.

The Strategic Importance of Clean Energy Technologies

While governments target each other’s citizens through social media over a variety of issues, clean technologies have become a much more attractive target in recent years. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, especially in a country like China that has had some serious, serious pollution problems in the past, we’re finding ourselves competing less over oil and more over the raw materials we need for things like batteries, electric motors, and power electronics.

At present, North American and European countries are behind the curve on this. Our lack of a robust industrial base, stricter environmental controls, and aversion to manual labor mean we’ve got a lot less mining going on. This leaves essential minerals coming from places like Africa and China.

The problem with relying on China for such minerals became all too apparent in 2010, when Japan’s supply of rare earths got cut off during a dispute over ocean territory. Suddenly, Japan couldn’t just not make renewable technologies, but found themselves short of things like contrast solution and other vital medical materials. They had no realistic choice but to fold, but the world took note that China wouldn’t hesitate to use minerals access as a weapon. This could also have contributed to Japan’s seemingly stupid preference for hydrogen over BEVs.

A Canadian Rare Earth Minerals Company Gets Hit By The Bots

The Globe and Mail recently had a piece about the struggles a Canadian company has been running into. As they’ve worked toward increasing North American mining and processing capabilities, which would take away China’s strategic advantage, suddenly a bunch of random “locals” in Saskatchewan started popping up talking about their fears over the project.

The “wumao” fingerprint was all over this. One account, going by “Gonzalez Bonnie” said it was deeply afraid of the mining, saying, “The idea of ​​extracting rare earth elements from abandoned mines is terrifying.” Other accounts had similar sentiments.

Weird names that show unfamiliarity with North America (like mixing up first and last names) are easy to spot, but there are often other telltale signs that an account is bogus. The accounts are often old, having been made years ago, but don’t have any real content. They might have a few retweets or a random comments on the main page that look like something a normal American or Canadian would post, but when you look at the replies the account makes, you’ll see that they’ve got a second personality that always defends China’s interests.

In other words, they’re designed to look like American or Canadian citizens at a glance, but the account spends most of its time on things someone from the area wouldn’t do.

Defending Against This

Trying to fight fake social media accounts is a losing strategy. No matter how much you try to fight the disinformation, it’s like trying to drink from a firehose. There are groups who try to fight back, like the “Quad A-10,” by using some social media accounts to inflame the people running the fake accounts and then using other accounts to report them when they violate Twitter or Facebook rules. But, there just aren’t enough people to get in the way of the operation when there are hundreds of thousands of people who can just make another Twitter or Facebook account and keep spreading disinformation.

The only real way to stop this is to make the general public more aware that foreign governments, and even our own governments, like to do this. If everyone thought twice about the identity of people on social media, they’d have an easier time separating facts from the hype and manipulation. It may even save a few people from romance scams, too.

Featured image: An electric mining truck. Image by Caterpillar.


 

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