Beijing and Moscow’s ‘Manchurian candidates’
Eerily, in this era of increasing use of propaganda as a weapon of war, the characters of John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” are uncomfortably coming to life in a dystopian way. Eleanor Iselin, in the form of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is on the hunt again inside Washington for unsuspecting marks. Her fictional son, Raymond Shaw, instead of being triggered to assassinate, is used as a trigger to seed disinformation.
Shaw’s “candidate” targets could be anyone inside the Beltway or across the nation. The head of a K Street lobbying firm. An influential university professor. Or even, brazenly, a sitting U.S. congressperson or senator.
In the movie, Iselin uses a Queen of Diamonds playing card as a post-hypnotic trigger to snap her brainwashed son into action. In real life, since at least 2015, Ukraine is the preferred “trigger” of Xi and Putin to foment division across the U.S. political ecosystem. That reach stems all the way from the steps of the Capitol to the grassroots level in small, rural American communities.
To fully understand the depth of Beijing and Moscow’s disinformation campaign against the U.S., it is dispositive to examine how China and Russia have sowed and deployed disinformation across sub-Saharan Africa to achieve national goals and increase their global influence and dominance.
Xi and Putin’s African disinformation campaigns, as we noted in London-based National Security News, are granular in construct. Much of it, as Constella Intelligence pointed out at a recent disinformation conference in Cape Town, South Africa, plays out across the digital ecosystem on the “surface, social, deep and dark web.”
Facebook, TikTok, Telegram, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms are entry points. In hijacking these “infotainment” mediums, Beijing and Moscow are able to innocuously seed and meld disinformation into the everyday interactions of unsuspecting users. Even cartoons are used toward this end.
Once seeded, the disinformation is quickly amplified across platforms. For example, a single subversive Russian propaganda video was quickly spread by 23 known pro-Wagner Group Facebook accounts, resulting in 14 million unique views across Africa. However, that is just one element of the campaign. The messaging is then reinforced by “false-flag” fact-checking sites using bots and artificial intelligence to fool readers into believing the sites, journalists and disinformation are real.
Nor does it stop there. Once planted at the granular level, it then is echoed on Chinese and Russian state-controlled media, including CGTN, Xinhua News and RT, which is delivered (much of it for free) across Africa by China’s StarTimes media satellite network.
Destabilization is the aim in Africa, centered around creating openings for Beijing and Moscow to subvert and then control governments that quickly become dependent upon their financial and military largesse for survival. In Mali, Russian anti-French disinformation campaigns led to the toppling of “democratically elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020.” Then, when his replacement pro-Russian Colonel Assimi Goïta ran into trouble, Putin dispatched the Wagner Group to prop him up, resulting in the massacre of over 300 civilians.
Beijing and Moscow’s end-state goals in Africa? Financial control of Africa’s vast natural resources, especially the continent’s rare earth minerals, and diplomatic support in global financial and diplomatic institutions. By example, Mali voted against the Feb. 24 United Nations General Assembly’s resolution demanding that Putin withdraw all of his forces from Ukraine.
The disinformation campaigns are self-funding. Essentially, as Code for Africa noted at the Cape Town summit, “digital mercenaries” are profiting out of “toxic content.” In addition to fomenting social divide, protests, violence and uprisings, Chinese and Russian “keyboard warriors” and their hired subcontractors across Africa are also cross-selling fraudulent and illicit services.
Africa is the definitive case study in the circular construct of Chinese and Russian disinformation. That annoying cell call or text from an unknown number that appears to be in the U.S., or an email hitting your inbox from Nigeria or Benin, in actuality may have connective tissue with a Chinese and Russian disinformation attack on the U.S. and our national interests.
Beijing’s and Moscow’s efforts to manipulate targets, as in Frankenheimer’s movie, require finding vessels who willingly or not will parrot into an even wider audience. Most of these marks are unsuspecting. Others willingly bite because it fits political or economic narratives they are pushing or derive self-benefits from, be it votes or renumeration.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is illustrative. Consider his actions last week during an appearance by Colin Kahl, the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy, when Gaetz entered into the official Congressional Record a finding from the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, falsely claiming the far right-wing Azov Battalion in Ukraine had been receiving “U.S. weapons as far back as 2018.”
Kahl, knowing the Global Times is state-controlled by China, adroitly countered by saying he does not take “Beijing’s propaganda at face value.” Gaetz’s error was unlikely a simple mistake; instead, it likely was the result of falling victim to the circular nature of Xi and Putin’s disinformation campaigns, which first conditioned and then confirmed his bias.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) frequently is quoted as parroting Chinese and Russian disinformation when it comes to Ukraine and U.S. national security. For example, last May she demanded that Congress immediately cease “funding regime change and money-laundering schemes.”
Sound familiar? It should.
In June 2021, seven months before his invasion of Ukraine, Putin accused the U.S. and the West of colluding over the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in an “anti-constitutional armed coup.” Then, in January of this year, Putin ally and Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine is a “money-laundering scheme.”
Xi and Putin’s clandestine efforts to influence the American political ecosystem are by no means solely targeted at persuading those on the right. They span the entirety of our political and socioeconomic spectrum. That includes academia such as the University of Chicago’s realist scholar John Mearsheimer, who frequently blames the U.S. and NATO for the war in Ukraine. It also includes those on the far left, including Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic. Beijing and Moscow are equal opportunity disinformation disseminators.
Regardless of who is targeted, far too often influential Americans are parroting Chinese and Russian disinformation as U.S. national security talking points. This creates the disconcerting reality of some fellow citizens appearing to be in closer lockstep with Xi and Putin — two dictators guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity — than with our own democratically elected government.
By the end of Frankenheimer’s movie, Shaw realizes he is being viciously played by his mother and refuses to betray his country. All of us — left, right and center — need to come to the same realization and stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated as a nation and a people by the likes of Xi and Putin.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
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