In yet another effort to tighten control, Beijing rolled out a new plan to further restrict private capital’s influence in Chinese media late last year. The policy is poised to ban non-state money from producing and distributing news, operating news organizations’ social media, and hosting news-related events, among other activities.
The clampdown could have a profound implication for policymakers and China watchers around the world. Chinese propaganda—“fake news” if ever there was any—has just gotten faker, and it’s ever more important now for observers to pay close attention to it.
Because tightly controlled news environments are reflective of their propagandists’ intentions, there’s a long practice in the United States and allied democracies of monitoring major authoritarian regimes’ communications and making inferences. Among the earliest successes was the World War II-era U.S. Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS) and British Political Warfare Executive, which closely followed Nazi propaganda and successfully predicted the deployment of Germany’s secret V-weapons.
The efforts continued after the war and became known as open-source intelligence—the practice of producing intelligence using publicly available information like propaganda, satellite images, and social media. Within the U.S. intelligence community, analyses have been done on Cold War-era Soviet communications and modern-day Chinese propaganda, among others. Similar work is increasingly carried out by nongovernmental analysts and institutions. My own research—the Policy Change Index—uses machine learning techniques to predict China’s behavior by mining its official newspaper, and it’s only one of many applications empowered by recent computational advances.