According to researchers, a massive online propaganda campaign promoting pro-China messaging has been attempting to influence American voters.
This week, two companies that study large-scale online influence operations released research showing that a pro-China campaign was active and targeting the US midterm elections as recently as this month. Researchers discovered fake accounts on the internet that spread messages such as the superiority of the Chinese state and the denigration of American democracy.
So far, there is no evidence that the influence operation was successful. Such efforts, however, demonstrate that pro-China influence operations aimed at the West are experimenting with new tactics and are increasingly aimed at influencing American elections.
In a report published Wednesday, Mandiant, a cybersecurity company recently acquired by Google, said that researchers discovered related material across multiple social media platforms, including videos purportedly from Americans that pushed pro-China messages and downplayed the effectiveness of voting.
Mandiant declined to name the platforms where the videos and other posts were discovered, or to say whether they included YouTube, which is also owned by Google.
The general focus of the political posts mirrored that of Russian information operations attempting to inflame partisan infighting in the United States, particularly ahead of the 2016 and 2018 elections. Both Russian intelligence officers and a private company with ties to the Kremlin were charged by the Justice Department with leading those operations.
While the pro-China campaign’s videos and posts were not widely viewed, some explicitly promoted civil war and political violence in the United States, according to John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of intelligence analysis.
“They’re extremely aggressive. “They appear to be well-resourced, if not particularly effective,” Hultquist said.
“They’re attempting to put protesters on the streets of the United States,” he added.
The other study, conducted by social media analytics firm Alethea, discovered 165 Twitter accounts that misled users about their identities and posted pro-China messages in English. Approximately one-third of those accounts shared inflammatory content about US elections, including claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Some referenced the QAnon conspiracy theory and echoed right-wing extremist content.
According to Lee Foster, Alethea’s senior vice president of analysis, if China’s government was behind the Twitter campaign, it demonstrates Beijing’s “increasing willingness to engage with domestic US politics.”
A Twitter spokesperson said in an email that the accounts were removed after Alethea flagged them, and that the company has since banned “hundreds” of related accounts.
Mandiant and Alethea both stated that the evidence they had gathered did not explicitly link the campaigns to the Chinese government, but that the campaign’s messaging aligned closely with Beijing’s foreign policy goals, including criticism of Chinese dissidents and Western companies that have clashed with China over rare earth mineral mining.
Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington D.C., denied any foreign election interference efforts in an emailed statement.
“China has always adhered to non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” he said.
“Speculating or accusing China of interfering in the US midterm elections through social media is completely baseless and malicious speculation.” “China demands that relevant parties refrain from making malicious speculation and unreasonable accusations against China,” he added.
Dakota Cary, a China specialist at the Krebs-Stamos group, a cybersecurity consultancy, said there was little doubt the campaign was orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China.
“We should expect that the PRC will continue to invest in social media campaigns aimed at dividing Americans around political issues,” Cary said, adding that China views itself as a rising power and the West as in decline.
“Supporting divisive narratives is likely to be seen as speeding an already ongoing trend,” he said.
Last month, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, removed 83 inauthentic accounts that advocated pro-China positions and sought to cast doubt on US elections.
The FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a midterm election warning earlier this month, stating that “foreign actors may create and knowingly disseminate false claims and narratives regarding voter suppression, voter or ballot fraud, and other false information intended to undermine confidence in the election processes.”
Officials from those agencies have stated that such information operations are far more likely than actual cyberattacks on election infrastructure in 2022.