Geostrategically Motivated Co-option of Social Media: The Case of Chinese LinkedIn Spy Recruitment



Mika Aaltola | Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The emergence of a more competitive power-political situation shifts rivalry into the economic and technological fields, as the costs of an open and direct military conflict remain very high in the nuclear age. The key strength of Western democracies is commonly attributed to their open economies and highly digitalized societies. However, these characteristics can also turn into vulnerabilities. The practices of geostrategic competition are evolving and can co-opt the ongoing information technological revolution. Many of the highly digitalized Western states have been waking up to the new types of power-political competition occurring in the social media domain. At the same time, the Western states have also developed capabilities as showcased by the ‘Snowden revelations’. Yet efforts have largely been channelled into the fight against terror, not geopolitical rivalry.

It can be argued that geopolitical practice is increasingly changing from direct and indirect territorial competition over strategic resources into competition over direct or indirect control of the key functions of global connections, such as the maritime, air, space, and digital domains. The focus here is on the newer type of functional competition over the digital domain and its social media platforms.

For resourceful state-level players, these new vulnerabilities offer lucrative, exploitable opportunities by: (1) Destabilizing: innovating new means of sowing and catalyzing societal divisions before, during and after democratic processes such as elections and referendums. (2) Scaling up: massively scaling up older practices such as espionage, as well as building multipurpose informer, influence, and corruptive networks.

In the first sense, social media can be utilized as a part of destabilizing campaigns, as the recent redacted version of the 2019 Mueller Report – presenting the findings of the official investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections – revealed. One aspect of the meddling operation was the use of the Russian quasi-governmental Internet Research Agency (IRA) across different social media platforms. According to the report, ‘by the end of the 2016 U.S. election, the IRA had the ability to reach millions of U.S. persons through their social media accounts. Multiple IRA-controlled Facebook groups and Instagram accounts had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures, who retweeted IRA-created content’. The digitalized geopolitical abuses of the platforms were also in evidence in European politics. Most of the discussions in this respect have focused on the 2017 French and German elections, and on the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership.



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