Information Warfare: The War On Fanboys

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May 26, 2021: In China the government is openly cracking down on anyone who takes pictures of military equipment or operations and posts them on the Internet. Several Chinese websites that regularly post such photos have been warned or suspended. Web sites suspended no longer work and users are presented with a government mandated message explaining why the site was suspended or shut down. The next step will be prosecutions for espionage or aiding the enemy. The pictures are still being taken, and will eventually make their way to the Internet via foreigners who obtain the photos offline. This is not the first time China has sought to deal with this problem and now they are being blunt about how foreign intelligence agencies obtain useful information via such photos.

For a long time one of the best sources of information on Chinese warship construction or new aircraft and military vehicles has been the Internet. Thousands of Chinese military buffs living close to major shipyards, air bases, army facilities and training areas have provided a steady supply of photos on the web. The Chinese government tried to prevent this but eventually concluded that cracking down on enthusiastic and Internet savvy Chinese fans of the military was not a wise move. A lot of important secrets are still preserved by building parts of ships in a shed and a lot of the most valuable military secrets are with equipment installed inside the ship or behind a wall. New aircraft and military vehicles are built in factories, not in the open like ships. Until now the government allowed all (with a few exceptions) of these photos to appear. No more. China now believes that the wide variety of fanboy photos and videos posted on the Internet are a major source of information of new developments in the Chinese military. This issue has been brought up before and this time the paranoid faction has won and the hammer is coming down on amateur propagandists for the military.

In the past there were incidents of China being upset at how the progress of warship construction were being revealed on the web and trying to hide that progress and revealing details of new ships. For example, in 2015 a new aircraft carrier was under construction in northeast China (Dalian). The mystery ship had all the hallmarks of a carrier. At the time the only unknown was whether this large (over 50,000 ton) vessel would have an angled flight deck. If not, it could be an amphibious ship using helicopters or an improved version of China’s first carrier. As construction proceeded all these questions would be answered unofficially because Chinese civilians in the area were eagerly taking photos with cell phone cameras and posting them to the Internet. In 2015 what was visible was just one section of the ship and it was unclear how many of these sections there would be and how long the ship is. Although Chinese intelligence officials had ordered the construction of a 22-meter (71 foot) wall around parts of the Dalian naval base to prevent people from taking pictures of what was going on there, this did not halt the appearance of photos taken by Chinese amateur naval enthusiasts. That was because some of the new commercial construction in the area resulted in an unexpectedly tall apartment building going up near the base. The military got new laws passed to restrict the height of new buildings put up near military bases. Getting existing buildings torn down or modified (as in North Korea) was too difficult because some of the building owners were powerful local communist officials. So up went the wall and the flood of photos kept coming anyway.

There is something else behind this paranoia about forbidden photographs. Since 2014 the quality and capabilities of high-end Chinese, South Korean and American cell phone cameras have rapidly advanced. The quality of photos posted, especially from China, has gotten much better and show even more detail. This is a global problem and militaries everywhere have had to find ways to limit troop use of cellphones to take photos in combat zones. Another problem was the location capabilities of these phones, which enables foreigners to locate the presence of troops, especially in combat zones. China has similar problems but refuses to discuss it openly. Chinese actions are quite visible, especially when it involves censorship of what Chinese can put on the Internet.

 


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