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Understanding Chinese Influence Operations and Social Movement Theory

DECUR Partnership

Year selected for award: 2019 DECUR

Understanding Chinese Influence Operations through the Lens of Social Movement Theory

Program: DECUR Partnership

Co-Principal Investigators: Tanushree Mitra, University of Washington, and Gwyneth Sutherlin, National Defense University

Years of Award: 2020 - 2022


Managing Service Agency: Office of Naval Research

Project Description:
China is known to influence public opinion, diffuse anti-government collective action, and propagandize the government’s point of view through astroturfing and domestic censorship. Astroturfing entails deceptively posting fabricated content and censorship involves selectively removing content to shape the narrative. This project aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of the astroturfing and censorship efforts by China through a unique and novel lens of social movement theory. Specifically, the work will focus on four research questions: (1) How do astroturfing and censorship manifest at the advent of a collective action event in an Indo-Pacific region? (2) How can we describe operations in terms of an ecology of the U.S.-based platforms and Chinese-based platforms that convey a Chinese strategic decision-making perspective? (3) How can we use both online and offline data observations to inform new cross-cultural theory in social interaction? (4) Can we validate a model that connects online and offline activities for Chinese influence operations in the Indo-Pacific? With a team equipped with both data science and political science expertise, this project plans to tackle these questions by identifying various narrative elements related to Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific.  We will conduct an interpretive, mixed-method analysis of online social media data and offline expert-guided surveys to model and visualize China’s information landscape.  With this project, we aim to facilitate knowledge sharing for the defense community and improve understanding of how influence operations propagate in a cross-cultural setting and generate actionable insights in the context of online as well as offline communication.