April 24, 2024

China’s ongoing efforts to influence the US elections are raising alarms

According to researchers and government officials, covert Chinese accounts are posing online as American supporters of former President Donald J. Trump. They are promoting conspiracy theories, stoking domestic divisions and attacking President Biden ahead of the November elections.

The reports indicate a possible tactical shift in how Beijing wants to influence US politics, with a greater willingness to target specific candidates and parties, including Mr Biden.

Following Russia’s influence campaign before the 2016 election, China appears to be trying to exploit partisan divisions to undermine the Biden administration’s policies, despite recent efforts by the two countries to lower the temperature in their relations.

Some Chinese accounts pose as avid Trump fans, including one on X who claimed to be “a father, husband and son” who is “totally MAGA!!” used to be. The accounts mocked Mr. Biden’s age and shared fake images of him in prison jumpsuits, or claimed Mr. Biden was a Satanist pedophile while promoting Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Elise Thomas, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research organization that has discovered a small group of fake accounts posing as Trump supporters.

Ms. Thomas and other researchers have linked the new activity to a long-running network of accounts linked to the Chinese government known as Spamouflage. Several of the accounts they described previously posted pro-Beijing content in Mandarin — only to resurface in recent months under the guise of real Americans writing in English.

In a separate project, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research organization, identified 170 inauthentic pages and accounts on Facebook that also spread anti-American messages, including targeted attacks on Mr. Biden.

This effort has been more successful in capturing the attention of actual users and has become more difficult for researchers to identify than previous Chinese attempts to influence public opinion in the United States. While researchers say the overall political slant of the campaign remains unclear, it has raised the possibility that the Chinese government is calculating that a second Trump presidency, despite his sometimes hostile statements against the country, could be preferable to a second Biden term.

Chinese activities have already caused alarm within the US government.

In February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that China was expanding its influence campaigns to “sow doubts about U.S. leadership, undermine democracy, and expand Beijing’s influence.” The report raised concerns that Beijing could use increasingly sophisticated methods to try to influence the US elections “to sideline critics of China.”

Ms. Thomas, who has studied China’s information operations for years, said the new effort suggested a more subtle and sophisticated approach than previous campaigns. It was the first time, she said, that she had encountered Chinese accounts that so convincingly presented themselves as Americans supporting Trump while managing to generate real engagement.

“The concern has always been: What if they wake up one day and they’re effective?” she said. “Potentially this could be the start of them waking up and becoming effective.”

Online disinformation experts look ahead with growing concern to the months before the November election.

Intelligence research shows that Russia is using increasingly subtle influence tactics in the United States to spread its case for isolationism as the war against Ukraine rages on. Fake news sites target Americans with Russian propaganda.

Efforts to combat false stories and conspiracy theories – already a difficult task – must now also contend with declining moderation efforts on social media platforms, political backlash, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence technology and widespread information fatigue.

Until now, China’s efforts to promote its ideology in the West have struggled to gain traction, first as the country continued its official propaganda about the superiority of its culture and economy and later as it began to denigrate democracy and become anti-democratic. to stir up American sentiments.

In the 2022 midterm elections, cybersecurity firm Mandiant reported that Dragonbridge, an influence campaign linked to China, tried to discourage Americans from voting while highlighting U.S. political polarization. That campaign, which experimented with fake American characters posting content in the first person, was poorly executed and largely overlooked online, researchers said.

The recent China-related campaigns have sought to exploit the divisions already evident in American politics, joining the divisive debate on issues such as gay rights, immigration and crime, primarily from a right-wing perspective.

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a China-linked account on Biden and the Central Intelligence Agency had sent a neo-Nazi gangster to fight in Ukraine. (That story was debunked by the research group Bellingcat.)

The next day, the post received a huge boost when Alex Jones, the podcaster known for spreading false claims and conspiracy theories, shared it on the platform with his 2.2 million followers.

The account referencing “MAGA 2024” had taken steps to appear authentic and described itself as run by a 43-year-old Trump supporter in Los Angeles. But it used a profile photo taken from a Danish man’s travel blog, the institute’s report on the accounts said. Although the account was opened 14 years ago, the first publicly viewable post was last April. That message attempted without evidence to link Mr. Biden to Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and registered sex offender.

There are also at least four similar accounts active, Ms. Thomas said, all with ties to China. One account paid for a subscription to Like the other accounts, it shared pro-Trump and anti-Biden claims, including the QAnon conspiracy theory and baseless accusations of election fraud.

The messages included exhortations to “be strong yourself, not to smear China and create rumors,” uncomfortable expressions such as “how dare?” instead of “how dare you?” and signs that the user’s web browser was set to Mandarin.

One of the accounts appeared to have died in May when it replied to another post in Mandarin; another posted mainly in Mandarin until last spring, when it went quiet for a while before resurfacing with all-English content. The reports denounced US lawmakers’ attempts to ban the popular TikTok app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, as a form of “true authoritarianism” orchestrated by Israel and as a tool for Mr Biden to undermine China.

The reports sometimes amplified or repeated content from China’s Spamouflage influence campaign, which was first identified in 2019 and linked to a department of the Ministry of Public Security. It once posted content almost exclusively in Chinese to attack the Communist Party’s critics and protesters in Hong Kong.

In recent years, attention has focused on the United States, portraying the country as overwhelmed by chaos. In 2020, it posted in English and criticized US foreign policy, as well as domestic issues in the United States, including the response to Covid-19 and natural disasters, such as the Hawaii wildfires last year.

China, which has denied interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, now appears to be building a network of accounts on many platforms that could go live in November. “This is reminiscent of the Russian style of operation, but the difference is more in the intensity of this operation,” said Margot Fulde-Hardy, a former analyst at Viginum, the government agency in France that fights online disinformation.

In the past, many Spamouflage accounts followed each other, posting sloppily in different languages ​​and simultaneously flooding social media users with identical messages on multiple platforms.

The newer accounts are harder to find because they are trying to build an organic following and appear to be controlled by humans rather than automated bots. One of the accounts on X also had linked profiles on Instagram and Threads, creating an appearance of authenticity.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Threads, deleted thousands of inauthentic accounts linked to Spamouflage on Facebook and others on Instagram last year. It called a network it took down “the largest known cross-platform influence operation to date.” Hundreds of related accounts remained on other platforms, including TikTok, X, LiveJournal and Blogspot, Meta said.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies documented a new coordinated group of Chinese accounts linked to a Facebook page with 3,000 followers called the War of Somethings. The report underlines the persistence of Chinese efforts despite Meta’s repeated attempts to take down Spamouflage accounts.

“What we see,” says Max Lesser, a senior analyst at the foundation, “is that the campaign continues as usual, undeterred.”

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