Chapter 7 How the People’s Liberation Army Uses Social Media for Propaganda
Division of Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts
Kuan-chen Lee Assistant Research Fellow
Mind control and public opinion guidance are the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics to hold on to power. Since the advent of the Internet and digital media, the CCP has stepped up its efforts to turn cyberspace into a battleground for public opinion by applying new technologies and approaches to seize the initiative from the battlefield of public opinion. For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), how to capitalize on the Internet to dominate public opinion, to have a say over public affairs, and even to wage information warfare and cyber warfare against its enemy is one of the key means to win what it calls “information-based local wars.” In recent years, the PLA has registered a plethora of official accounts on Weibo and WeChat, utilizing these new channels to enhance the reach and penetration of its propaganda. Compared to traditional military news dissemination, the new form of Chinese military media has become a warfare force with “a neo-type military soft power that is politically motivated, opinion-led propaganda and psychological influence.” With the borderless nature of information dissemination, even when we are on the island of Taiwan, we often receive news of the Chinese fleet circling Taiwan carrying out long-distance training over the sea, the Chinese military aircraft flying around the island, the Dongfeng missiles launch test by the PLA Rocket Force, or the organization of military drills surrrounding the Taiwan Strait. The PLA’s social media campaign is designed to maximize the spread of its warfare training, combining physical, physiological and psychological elements in “fusion warfare” to reinforce the deterrent effect.
Since the PLA made the “three warfares” (psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and legal warfare) a priority in 2003, it has recently made efforts to develop software, hardware and tactics that affect the cognitive abilities of its opponents, indicating that the PLA sees information as the most crucial element for success in future wars. Given the CCP’s emphasis on the role of information in warfare, more and more research has begun to look at the PLA’s social media operations, propaganda strategies and disinformation campaigns. To date, however, few studies have systematically analyzed the PLA’s social media postings, leaving U.S. unclear as to what propaganda the PLA engages in through social media. Is there a temporal and spatial pattern to the frequency of different types of propaganda? Is the content on different official accounts like a set meal served from a central kitchen, or is it a customized one to suit the audience’s taste? Clarifying the logic of the PLA’s social media propaganda will not only help us to understand its weaponized propaganda model, but also boost our immunity to information manipulation.
In view of this, this paper collected data from four official Weibo accounts of the PLA, including PLA Eastern Theater Command (ETC), PLA Southern Theater Command (STC), PLA Central Theater Command (CTC), and PLA Western Theater Command (WTC) from August 1, 2020 to August 25, 2021, for 5,033 Weibo posts altogether. Through text mining and the structural topic model (STM), the postings were examined, in order to ascertain the pattern and development of the spread of public opinion on social media by the PLA and to probe its implications. In the subsequent sections, Part II deals with the PLA’s communication strategy on social media and presents the types and themes of its propaganda with empirical data; Part III provides insights into the logic behind the PLA’s propaganda by looking into the chronological changes in the frequency of postings on different topics; then, the differences in the content of posts on the official Weibo accounts from different theater commands are compared to highlight their customized spreading patterns. Finally, the conclusion of this chapter is drawn based on the arguments put forward in each section.
 Hui-ming Tung, PRC’s Military Media Propaganda and Dissemination Strategy, Fu Hsing Kang Academic Journal, Vol. 113, December 2018, p. 4.
 There are numerous cases of the PLA releasing drills against Taiwan through its official Weibo account, such as “MND Keeps Tabs on and Responds to the PLA Eastern Theater Command’s Air and Sea Exercises,” Central News Agency, August 17, 2021, https://reurl.cc/a9Q4nZ; “PLA 80th Group Army Official’s Microblogging Site Post ‘Preparing for war’ as Drills of Various Military Types Taking Place in June,” ETtoday, June 10, 2021, https://reurl.cc/Q90ZW5; “PLA Eastern Theater Command Assault Drill, Rocket Force Midnight Multi-round Fire Strike,” ETtoday, September 14, 2020, https://reurl.cc/Ldlj6K; “Another Provocation! PLA Releases ‘If War Broke out Today’ Video, Threatening to Defend ‘Every Inch of the Motherland,” Apple Daily, September 22, 2020, https://reurl.cc/Q3Enep; “Breaking News: PLA Nighttime Drill Video ‘Dongfeng Missiles,’ Netizens Threaten: Liberate Taiwan at Dawn!” Formosa TV News, September 22, 2020, https://reurl.cc/zzDglN; “Aimed at Taiwan? PLA Eastern Theater Command Releases Video of “Dozens of Dongfeng Missiles Fired in Rapid Succession,” Apple Daily, September 25, 2020, https://reurl.cc/Q3EnEZ.
 For more information on the physical, physiological and psychological elements in fusion warfare, see Jianwei Wang, All Victory: The Way to Win in the Information Network Era (Wuhan: Changjiang Wenyi Press, 2017), p. 108.
 For research on the three warfares, see Pan, C.C., “The Development of the PLA’s Political Endeavors in the New Century,” Prospect & Exploration, Vol. 3, No. 9, September 2005, pp. 69-82; For the PLA’s development of a concept of warfare in the cognitive domain, see Huafeng Zeng and Haiming Shi, Mental Dominance: The Laws of War in the Global Media Age and National Security Strategy (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2014), pp. 180-196; Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Cognitive Domain Operations: The PLA’s New Holistic Concept for Influence Operations,” China Brief, Vol. 19, No. 16, September 2019, https:// reurl.cc/yEx4ny.
 The PLA ETC official Weibo account was created on August 1, 2020 and has been followed by more than 550,000 fans since then at https://reurl.cc/pyvnvb; the PLA STC official Weibo account was registered on Au- gust 1, 2020 and has been followed by more than 470,000 fans since then at https://reurl.cc/ogO48D; the PLA CTC official Weibo account posted its first message on February 1, 2020 and has over 1.01 million followers since then at https://reurl.cc/yEx4Ra; Xi-lu-qiang-jun-hao ( 西 陸 強 軍 號 ) is the official Weibo account of the PLA WTC, which was officially established on August 1, 2020 and has over 250,000 followers at https://reurl. cc/ R0aEE9.
 The structural topic model, a follow-on to the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) model, is used in the field of unsupervised machine learning and natural language processing, primarily to uncover statistical models of la- tent topics in a range of documents. For related methods and applications, see Margaret E. Roberts et al., “stm: R Package for Structural Topic Models,” Journal of Statistical Software, Vol. 91, No. 2, October 2019, pp. 1-40; Margaret E. Roberts et al., “Structural Topic Models for Open-Ended Survey Questions,” American Jour- nal of Political Science, Vol. 58, No. 4, October 2014, pp. 1064-1082.