China is no stranger to using social media networks to influence public opinion. But as Chinese foreign policy becomes increasingly assertive, they are doing a lot more to win foreign hearts and minds on Facebook and Twitter. A joint investigation by the AP and the Oxford Internet Institute has revealed how Chinese diplomats and state media outlets are coordinating on social media to strategically amplify messages from Beijing — which are then further amplified by an army of fake accounts that Facebook and Twitter keep playing whack-a-mole with. We take a look at China's public diplomacy activity, reach, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter over the span of a few months since mid-2020.
Carlos Santamaria is Senior Writer of Signal. He joined GZERO Media from a UN agency, and has also worked for the Asian Development Bank, Devex, Philippine online news platform Rappler, and news agencies EFE and Xinhua. Carlos spent over a decade in Asia and has worn many hats throughout his career, but he's a journalist at heart and feels right at home with Signal's team of political news nerds. The only thing he loves more than writing about global politics is watching FC Barcelona football (soccer) games in his native Spain.
What We’re Watching: Putin to tighten Russian gun laws, Iran-Saudi thaw, new forests vs climate change
Putin orders review of gun laws after school shooting: Details remain sketchy following a shooting at a school in the Russian city of Kazan. At least seven children and one teacher were killed, and a 19-year-old has been arrested, according to local officials. In response to the attack, President Vladimir Putin "gave an order to urgently work out a new provision concerning the types of weapons that can be in civilian hands, taking into account the weapon" used in this shooting, according to a Kremlin spokesman. There's an irony here that extends to the United States, where school shootings are all too common. In 2018, a Russian woman named Maria Butina pleaded guilty to using the National Rifle Association, the gun rights lobbying group, to "establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over American politics." At the time, Putin described Butina's 18-year sentence as an "outrage." The NRA, of course, works hard to prevent Congress and the president from taking precisely the kinds of actions that Putin swiftly ordered following the shooting in Kazan.
Forests growing back: Finally some good news about the environment. According to a new WWF study, an area of forest equivalent to the size of France has regrown across the world in the past 20 years. These "new" forests in places like Brazil, Mongolia, Canada or parts of Africa could possibly trap up to 5.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually — more than the US, the world's second largest emitter, puts into the atmosphere annually. The forest regrowth is the result of planting new trees, keeping livestock away, eliminating invasive plants, and, interestingly, not doing anything at all. While this is a welcome development in the global struggle against climate change, unfortunately it's still being offset by alarming rates of deforestation, especially in the Amazon. The experts tell us that for forests to become a true climate solution, we would need to grow new forests at least twice as fast as we're destroying them around the world. So time to plant a lot of trees, or to just leave forests alone.Iran-Saudi talks: Could longtime bitter Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia be on the cusp of an understanding? Tehran has just confirmed that both sides actually sat down recently for the first time in years to ease tensions — perhaps in part as a consequence of the Biden administration's move to cut support for the Saudis in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting a proxy war since 2014. Washington, which aims to draw back from the region more broadly, also wants the Saudis to go along with any US-Iran deal to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman recently said he wants to get along with the Iranians, a major change of tone for him. Let's not get carried away of course: there's still a lot of bad blood between both sides, but the mere fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are talking is progress towards avoiding a major conflict between the region's two main powers.
Hard Numbers: Cash to stop EU migrants, Chinese population growth slows, US gas prices up, Thais arrest Myanmar journalists
13,000: Around 13,000 migrants from North Africa have landed in Italy so far this year, three times as many as in the same period in 2020. Prime Minister Mario Draghi has denied a media report that Italy wanted the European Union to pay Libya to stop those migrants from leaving for the EU from its shores.
0.53: China's population grew at an abysmal 0.53 percent annually over the last decade. That's below replacement levels, and puts more pressure on China to encourage its citizens to make more babies... as long as they're not Uighurs in Xinjiang.
6: US gas prices have risen by an average six cents per gallon so far this week, close to their highest level since 2014. This is due to supply disruptions tied to last Friday's ransomware cyberattack on the Dominion Pipeline, which serves almost half the country and has already been shut down for five days.3: Thailand has arrested three Myanmar journalists for illegally crossing the border to escape the Burmese military's crackdown on pro-democracy forces — including independent media outlets — following a coup earlier this year. Thai authorities are widely expected to deport the reporters back to Myanmar, where they will surely face lengthy jail terms for covering anti-government protests.
A few days ago, cyber criminals hacked into one of the largest oil pipelines in the US, which halted operations after its corporate IT network was knocked offline. If the engineers don't fix the system on their own or the owners cough up the ransom that the hackers are demanding, millions of Americans will soon feel the heat of cybercrime in their daily lives, through higher prices at the gas pump.
Who pulled off this attack, and what does it tell us about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and the rules (or lack thereof) in cyber conflict today?
The culprit. The US government has blamed the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack on DarkSide, a relatively new group of veteran hackers from Eastern Europe famous for bragging about its exploits online, and leaking data dumps from victims who don't pay up. The DarkSiders style themselves as Robin Hoods of the hacker world, donating (a minuscule) part of their profits to global NGOs such as Children International and The Water Project. But this time they may have bitten off a bit more than they can chew.
DarkSide issued on Monday a rare apology for creating "problems" to society, insisting they only want money and are not at all interested in politics, although they do seem to avoid former Soviet bloc nations. That's common for cyber criminals based in these countries, whose governments will look the other way as long as hackers target victims outside their borders.
One of those governments is that of Russia, with a long history of outsourcing its dirty cyber work to unscrupulous hackers. Joe Biden says there's no evidence that the Kremlin was involved this time, but does have "some responsibility."
The problem. The fact that a bunch of geeks armed with laptops shut down a pipeline that serves 45 percent of America's oil refineries shows that US critical infrastructure is a lot more vulnerable to cyber-extortion than we'd like to think. And the Biden administration's $2 trillion plan to upgrade US infrastructure across the board turns cybersecurity into an even more urgent concern.
As always, the pandemic has made everything worse. Ransomware attacks — and cybercrime in general — have boomed in COVID times, largely as a result of IT systems that became more vulnerable when companies rushed to adapt them for remote access. Moreover, hackers are now targeting bigger firms for a lot more money thanks to the rise of cryptocurrencies, which make it easier for them to get paid and harder to trace.
Ransomware attacks are particularly problematic for companies and countries because they are forced to make a tough choice: pay off hackers and risk encouraging further such attacks, or hold out and take the economic or social disruption on the chin.
The response. The Colonial Pipeline hack shows how cyberattacks can do severe damage to a country by disrupting critical infrastructure. But as we've written before, these types of operations are hard to prevent, and even harder to attribute and respond to.
So far, the US government has declared a state of emergency to keep the oil flowing to the Eastern Seaboard. But at this point it can't do much more to stop the hackers, or hold them responsible for a brazen attack that would otherwise be considered an act of war against America. It can't even prevent the corporation from paying the cryptocurrency ransom.What it can do mostly depends on whether a foreign government was involved, or aware of what DarkSide was cooking. If that's confirmed later on, the US may want to hit that country harder than with the usual economic sanctions. There could even be political pressure to respond proportionately in cyberspace — perhaps with a similarly damaging attack. And when the cyber gloves are off, things could get very bad, very fast.
COVID has officially killed almost 3.5 million people around the world since the beginning of the pandemic. But some public health experts believe that the real number could be more than twice as high, because of challenges to accurately reporting the death toll in many countries around the world. A new study from the University of Washington contends, for example, that actual deaths are nearly 60 percent higher than reported in the US, twice as high in India, more than four times as high in Russia... and a staggering ten times higher than the official tally in Japan. Here's a look at how official figures compare to actual estimated deaths in the 20 countries where COVID has claimed the most lives.
What We're Watching: French and Brits fight over fish, Nigeria's insecurity, Duterte cozies up to China
Paris-London face-off at sea: France and the UK are at loggerheads in the high seas this week over post-Brexit fishing access in Jersey, an island off the English Channel. Furious at regulations that they say makes it harder to fish in these lucrative waters, dozens of French fishing boats amassed near the Channel Island, threatening to block access to the port. In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two naval vessels — a move critics say was an unnecessary escalation, and an attempt by the PM to flex his muscles and bolster the Tory vote ahead of Thursday's regional election. France, for its part, sent its own naval ship and threatened to cut off Jersey's electricity supply, 90 percent of which comes from French underwater cables. Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Though an UK-EU Brexit agreement was finally reached in December 2020, it's clear that there are still thorny issues that need to be resolved.
Nigeria's insecurity woes: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has made tackling worsening insecurity in his country a political priority, but nothing seems to be making much of a difference: attacks and kidnappings by armed criminal gangs and Islamist militants have become a constant part of life in northern Nigeria, and have already claimed hundreds of lives this year alone. Buhari's new security chiefs, expected to bring fresh blood into an aging security apparatus, have so far failed to deliver on their promise to end the violence (including by Nigeria's often trigger-happy police against civilians). The situation has gotten so bad that members of the president's own party are now openly criticizing the leadership of Buhari, a former general who led a military junta that ruled Nigeria in the early 1980s before being elected as a civilian in 2015. Earlier this week, the armed forces came out in support of the president amid growing calls for Buhari to step down before his second term in office ends in two years time. But if the security situation continues to deteriorate, the generals could change their minds.
Is Duterte getting too cozy with China? Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has had a busy few days. This week alone, he has berated his top diplomat over an expletive-laden Twitter tirade against China, apologized for getting vaccinated with a Chinese-made COVID vaccine that hasn't yet been approved for domestic use in the Philippines, and said the 2016 arbitration ruling in favor of his country's claims in the South China Sea is not worth the paper it's written on. While Duterte cozying up to China's Xi Jinping is nothing new, this might be starting to have political consequences for him as support for China has plummeted among the Filipino electorate. While Duterte's popularity has not been tested in a major nationwide survey since October 2020, when it hit a whopping 93 percent, if current trends continue, the incumbent may have a hard time in next year's presidential election. Since he can't run for a second term, Duterte's allies want him to be a candidate for VP alongside his daughter so the family can stay in power. But will Duterte's infatuation with China ruin his chances?
India and Brazil are currently the world's top two COVID hotspots. But while India's crisis is — at least according to official statistics — a relatively recent one, Brazil's COVID disaster has been an ongoing train wreck. Where India seemed to have kept the pandemic under control until some bad missteps about two months ago, COVID has been wreaking havoc in Brazil almost constantly for over a year now. And President Jair Bolsonaro's macho-posturing and COVID denialism has clearly not helped. We take a look at average daily new cases and deaths in both countries since the pandemic began.
What We’re Watching: US vaccine patent U-turn, right wins big in Madrid, Biden weighs in on Russia-Ukraine
US reverses course on vaccine patents: In a surprise move, the Biden administration will now support waiving international property rights for COVID vaccines at the World Trade Organization. Until now the US had firmly opposed waiving those patents, despite demands from developing countries led by India and South Africa to do so. Biden's about face comes just a week after he moved to free up 60 million of American-bought AstraZeneca jabs — still not approved by US regulators — for nations in need. It's not clear how fast an IP waiver would really help other countries, as the major impediments to ramping up vaccine manufacturing have more to do with logistics and supply chains than with patent protections alone. But if patent waivers do accelerate production over time, then that could accelerate a global return to normal — potentially winning the US a ton of goodwill.
The left gets pummeled in Madrid: The two leftwing parties in Spain's national government got massacred in regional elections in Madrid this week. Both the center-left PSOE and the far-left Podemos were steamrolled by the conservative Popular Party, which more than doubled its current seats to win 64, just four shy of a majority on its own in the Madrid legislature. The PP may now even turn to the upstart far-rightists of Vox in order to form a coalition government in Madrid. The defeat was a crushing blow for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE, who has often clashed with Madrid's pugnacious regional leader over the latter's disdain for economy-crippling lockdowns. Moreover, the surge in support for PP and Vox in Madrid — always an influential bellwether for national politics — will make him very reluctant to call early elections, which he was considering doing because the PP until recently was in big trouble following its dismal showing in the Catalan election just three months ago. Interesting times ahead for Spanish politics.Biden, Ukraine, and Russia: I'd like to speak face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin sometime this summer, says US President Joe Biden. Not a bad idea, says the Kremlin. If it happens, the two leaders are sure to talk about Ukraine, and there have been suggestions this week that the US might join Germany and France in efforts to mediate the conflict and find a path to peace. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken is actually in Kyiv this week to assert "unwavering US support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression." Russia has lately been dialing up the pressure on Ukraine – with a brief military buildup along the border between the two countries, military exercises in the disputed Crimea peninsula, and Russian threats to blockade key Ukrainian ports. These are reminders that the central challenge for any mediator is ending a conflict that Russia's government still finds useful for both domestic and international purposes.