Pro-China social media campaign sought to influence U.S. voters, researchers say

A widespread online propaganda campaign spreading pro-Chinese messages has attempted to sway American voters, researchers say.

Two companies investigating large-scale online influence operations released investigations this week showing a pro-China campaign was active, targeting the US midterm elections just this month. Researchers found fake accounts online that wanted to spread messages such as Chinese state supremacy and denigration of American democracy.

So far there is no evidence that the influencer operation was effective. But such efforts show that pro-Chinese influence operations aimed at the West are experimenting with new tactics and are increasingly aimed at influencing American elections.

Mandiant, a cybersecurity company recently acquired by Google, said in a report published on Wednesday that researchers found related material on multiple social media platforms, including videos allegedly by Americans spreading pro-Chinese messages and the effectiveness of Downplay votes.

Mandiant declined to name the platforms on which the videos and other posts were found and whether they include YouTube, which is also owned by Google.

The general focus of the political posts mirrored that of Russian intelligence operations trying to ignite US partisan infighting, particularly ahead of the 2016 and 2018 elections. The Justice Department blamed both Russian intelligence officers and a private company with ties to the Kremlin for to direct operations.

While the pro-China campaign videos and posts weren’t widely shared, some explicitly promoted civil war and political violence in the U.S., said John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at Mandiant.

“They are very aggressive. They appear to be very well equipped, although not very effectively,” Hultquist said.

“They’re trying to get protesters onto the streets of the United States, which is pretty brazen,” he added.

The other report by social media analytics firm Alethea found 165 Twitter accounts misleading users as to who they were and posting pro-Chinese messages in English. About a third of these accounts posted inflammatory content about US elections, including claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Some repeated far-right content and alluded to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Lee Foster, Alethea’s senior vice president of analysis, said that if the Chinese government was behind this Twitter campaign, it shows Beijing has “an increasing willingness to engage with US domestic politics.”

In an email, a Twitter spokesperson said the company removed the accounts after Alethea flagged them and that it has since suspended “hundreds” of associated accounts.

Both Mandiant and Alethea said the evidence they gathered did not explicitly link the campaigns to the Chinese government, but rather that the campaign’s messages were closely aligned with Beijing’s foreign policy goals, including criticism of Chinese dissidents and Western companies that clashed with China over rare earth mining.

In an emailed statement, Chinese Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu denied that China was responsible for foreign efforts to interfere in elections.

“China has always adhered to non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said.

“Speculating or accusing China of using social media to meddle in the US midterm elections is completely baseless and malicious speculation. China demands that the relevant parties stop malicious speculation and improper allegations against China,” he added.

Dakota Cary, China specialist at Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity consultancy, said there was little doubt that the People’s Republic of China was behind the campaign.

“We should expect that the PRC will continue to invest in social media campaigns aimed at dividing Americans on political issues,” Cary said, adding that China presents itself as a rising power and the West as a in decline.

“Support for divisive narratives is likely seen as accelerating an already ongoing trend,” he said.

Last month, Facebook’s parent company Meta removed 83 inauthentic accounts that similarly expressed pro-China stance and wanted to sow doubts about the US election.

In a midterms alert earlier this month, the FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that “foreign actors may be creating and knowingly disseminating false claims and narratives about voter suppression, voter or voter fraud, and other false information based on it.” aim to undermine confidence in the electoral procedures.”

Such information operations are much more likely in 2022 than actual cyberattacks on electoral infrastructure, officials from those agencies said.

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