Despite the grandstanding and brinkmanship on display across the global political stage, the world is clearly moving away from the idea that military might makes right. The era of hard power, ruled by nuclear arsenals and militarization, has not fully disappeared, but it has slowly made way for an era of soft power, where influence and covert leverage mean more than how badly countries can hurt each other. After all, in an age where there are several countries that could trigger World War III, physical force loses some of its threat.
The problem with this shift toward soft power is not the trend itself, but rather the mechanisms that become available to countries seeking to exert their influence. Especially in the East, a region known more for its varied and authoritarian-leaning governments, regimes have invested heavily in disinformation as a major tool of statecraft.
As countries jostle for influence and primacy in the region, ranging from the Persian Gulf and the Middle East all the way to Southeast Asia, disinformation has become central to many countries’ plans. As this trend evolves, it could become a highly dangerous threat facing democracy and freedom in the region for years to come.
Trading AKs for Twitter bots
In March, Hong Kong people began aggressively protesting against a new law that would have allowed them to be extradited to mainland China to be tried by courts there. Thought that so-called extradition bill has been shelved, protests have continued nearly unabated for six months and have at times turned nasty, with police dousing protesters with teargas, employing tactics that are considered unethical, and clashing with protesters almost daily.
If one were to look at Twitter, however, the story would be largely about how protesters have been violent, how they are subverting the rule of law, and other anti-protest messages. The culprit is a massive effort undertaken by China to control the narrative in its favor, with more than 200,000 accounts taking part in coordinated activities, according to Twitter itself. This seems like a massive outlier, but even as Asia moves to pivot from its developing status and join its fully industrialized peers in the West, its governments continue repressive and questionable tactics to keep populations misinformed and amplify their soft power across the region.
These are a few examples of a much broader problem in the region. Asia has been at the epicenter of a wave of “totalitarian propaganda, censorship, intimidation, physical violence, and cyber-harassment,” as described by Reporters Without Borders. China, for instance, managed to worsen its ranking by falling one spot to 177th in that organization’s press-freedom index, while Vietnam dropped to 176th. Even Hong Kong, once a liberal bastion in China’s orbit, has fallen to 73rd as it bows to pressure from Beijing. Although the Pacific and Southeast regions of Asia have been at the forefront, however, the Middle East has not been far behind in embracing disinformation as a means of soft power.
The Middle East has long been known for tensions and the uneasy alliances that have emerged among regional neighbors. Even so, sharp divisions have been created by such nations as Saudi Arabia and its rivals Qatar and Iran, which harness the media tools at their disposal to influence the region. For example, Qatar has used its considerable wealth and its state-owned media agency, Al Jazeera, covertly and slowly to reshape its image as a regional power broker. With many leadership figures, including the chairman of the network, being members of the Qatari royal family, many in the region view Al Jazeera as partisan and overly influenced by Qatari rulers.
More important, the country isn’t afraid to wield its extended media apparatus to expand its soft power in the region. Take the case of the online publication Middle East Eye (MEE), a website based in the UK suspected to have ties to Qatar. In 2016, MEE published an explosive news piece alleging that the United Arab Emirates had indirectly funneled funds to Turkish coup conspirators through former Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan.
The story quickly worked its way through social media, changing perceptions about Turkey and shifting the narrative toward the Turkish government’s preferred story. The problem was that the story was taken from a single unverified source in Turkish intelligence and completely unverified. After MEE was sued in a UK court, it was revealed that the publication consistently does this sort of thing. This is but a small sample of how states can exert subtle pressures and aid allies under the radar.
When deception becomes statecraft
The uses of disinformation in expanding soft power are multifaceted and dangerous. As more repressive regimes and supposedly “liberal” nations embrace the power of fake news and the ability to create the conversation as they see fit, the situation is likely to worsen. Asia has never been known for hands-off government, from the Middle East to China’s eastern coasts. However, the ability to reframe any point quickly, turn eyes toward a specific topic, and even spout false information with impunity adds a dimension to these countries’ soft-power endeavors.
China can make the world look the other way on human-rights violations, censorship, and its attempts to tamp down a protest movement that has been gaining steam. Qatar can make itself appear a liberal mecca in a sea of conservative, regressive regimes, and other countries can uphold archaic laws using misleading, and in some cases completely fabricated, data.
Soft power is quickly becoming the major way states leverage their influence. When complemented with disinformation, it allows governments to create the conditions designed expressly to keep the rest of us in the dark.