Information Warfare: Astroturf Fail

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February 10, 2020: China recently discovered how astroturfing, creating fake “grassroots” support, loses its impact when the deception aspect is revealed. A recent example (late January 2020) occurred outside a western Canada (Vancouver) courthouse as demonstrators assembled to protest efforts to extradite a Chinese telecommunications executive. This was a big deal in China because this defendant worked for Huawei, the largest telecom company in China and the world. A crowd gathered carrying signs demanding the release of the Huawei executive. One sign even made reference to a pair of Canadian diplomats arrested in China and charged with espionage. That was relevant because the diplomats were actually taken as hostages to pressure the Canadian government to release the Huawei executive. Soon after the demonstrators began their protest things took a turn for the bizarre.

When reporters went to interview some of the demonstrators it was discovered that the demonstrators didn’t know they were demonstrators. The sign carrying group had been hired as background performers for a music video and were paid a hundred dollars each for two hours of work. The “background performers” were not happy to find out they had actually been hired for astroturfing. This form of Information Warfare has been increasingly used because it’s a relatively cheap way to get some favorable publicity, especially if the astroturfing stunt goes viral on the Internet and becomes a news event. This only works, of course, if the audiences don’t know it’s astroturfing, especially before the event is even concluded.

Astroturfing has been around for a long time but the current version is made possible by mass media and short news cycles. That means you only have to be convincing for a few hours, or a few days at most, before you are found out. At that point, it does not matter much if the astroturf angle is uncovered because the original event has already become old, and no longer featured, news. The freshest newsworthy events tend to fade quickly and competitive news organizations always have something new queued up to keep the audience turned in.

Mass media, and the possibility of astroturfing, is a relatively recent (mid-19th century) development. The industrial revolution made newspapers cheap enough to attract a mass audience. Printing photos in the newspaper required additional technology that did not arrive until the late 19th century. This was immensely popular and suddenly newspapers needed lots of attention grabbing photos, which could be published more quickly and had more impact than drawings. Astroturfing came out of that but became an even more common activity once newsreels (short video news films) became possible and popular in the early 20th century and lasted until the 1960s when they were replaced by TV news. At that point, there was a larger, and growing, demand for a video that would attract lots of TV viewers. In the early 21st century the appearance of the World Wide Web made astroturfing events even more useful. But for an astroturfing event to work, the illusion of veracity (faked) had to be maintained. Usually it is, at least initially. That’s what really matters because the useful life of a news video is short. Failed, by exposure of the deception, astroturfing tends to last longer in the public eye because it is relatively rare for such an event to be exposed immediately.

The Chinese government is a major user of astroturfing, especially because China is still a communist police state where unauthorized astroturfing can get you imprisoned, or worse. In most of the Western world, there are no such risks. The Vancouver astroturf fail was all about the United States accusing Huawei of financial crimes and seeking to prosecute Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Her 2018 arrest in Canada, at the request of the United States, led to a legal and public relations effort to prevent Meng from being extradited to the United States for trial.

Meng Wanzhou is the 47 years old daughter of a former Chinese army officer who was one of the founders of Huawei. Meng was arrested while at a Canadian airport transferring to a connecting flight. The Americans have been investigating Huawei for illegally exporting smartphones to Iran and engaging in bank fraud to enable Iran to facilitate foreign trade despite American sanctions against it. Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei CFO (Chief Financial Officer) will be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution if Meng is unable to get a Canadian court to rule against the extradition request.

Canadian leaders insist that the law will be strictly observed and justice done. Her lawyers are trying to delay the extradition but her father recently said that he expects his daughter to be convicted and go to jail. The Canadian court decision is expected by mid-2020.

One aspect of Huawei that does not help Meng Wanzhou is that the firm has close ties with the Chinese military and government intel agencies, while many Western nations are refusing to use any Huawei equipment in their networks because of the potential for current or future hidden features in Huawei gear that facilitates Chinese espionage or military operations in general. Many victims of Huawei dirty tricks have gone public with the details since it is safe to do so with Huawei and the Chinese government on the defensive. Huawei has ordered production cuts as foreign customers realize that importing Huawei is, at least for the moment, not a wise business decision.

 


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