While US intelligence experts generally believe that Russia can spread disinformation better than any other country in order to undermine voter confidence before the elections, security experts have been preoccupied with a longer-term threat. They fear that the Chinese government’s disinformation operations will pose a far more insidious threat to democracy that will continue well beyond election day.
Scholars who study the effort say the Chinese are becoming bolder and bolder, often taking pages from what was once considered Russia’s playbook for discrediting the United States. It’s a pattern that worries global intelligence officials so much that Ken McCallum, the new chief of intelligence at MI5, said last week when Russia’s influence operations are like bad weather; China’s growing operations are like climate change – far more destructive.
“We find ourselves in a competition between democratic systems and autocratic systems of government,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is part of the United States’ non-profit German Marshall Fund and follows the changing dynamic. “China has grown in geopolitical and economic influence and is trying to present itself as a system that is equally legitimate for democratic governance. This is fundamentally contrary to the interests of the US.”
While Chinese government officials vigorously deny interfering in the presidential election, they also emphasize that they plan to maintain their reputation on the global stage.
“We are not interested and have never interfered in the US presidential election,” State Department spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference on September 23. “On the contrary – the world can clearly see who has deliberately interfered in the internal affairs of other countries.”
Russia has used disinformation methods for decades to covertly sow divisive and conspiracy theories in the US, experts said. In the internet age, this has translated into paying employees to manipulate public opinion through social media.
It also contains a large English language propaganda network that includes Russian television and related websites. These websites attempt to promote stories that both exacerbate political tensions in the US and place the country in a particularly bad light for the rest of the world by promoting its violent protests, racial struggles and what the websites consider to be the incompetence of the Represent government, highlight.
China’s information operations have historically focused more on building China’s global standing than attacking the US and the West. As trade relations increase around the globe, China does not want to act as a rogue operator, experts said. She wants to ensure that her global counterparts recognize her geopolitical strength.
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“Basically the only business we do with Russia is arms control and buying stolichnaya vodka,” said a senior congressional official who was aware of intelligence issues and was not empowered to speak publicly and asked not to be identified . “The Russians want to take us with them. The Chinese cannot afford to see us in chaos because we are their largest market. They are trying to hasten the relative decline of the United States and its rise to primacy.”
To this end, the Chinese Communist Party has built a so-called “discourse power” by formulating a narrative that its model of government is superior to democratic governance structures. Experts said the goal is to develop more influence overseas, especially among Americans political and military allies in Southeast Asiaalienated from President Donald Trump and ultimately intended to replace the US as the dominant world power.
“The infrastructure and bureaucracy in China is more geared towards showcasing their point of view and engaging potentially likable audiences around the world, especially in diaspora communities,” said Graham Bookie, acting director and managing editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab , a not-for-profit international affairs think tank.
However, in the past 18 months, the Chinese have begun extracting pages from the Russian game book. Bookie said they used both covert and overt tactics to manipulate public opinion, including outright disinformation.
“We saw more of a willingness to conduct more aggressive influence operations, including some things that we would associate with Russia,” said Bookie.
For example, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese agents created fake social media accounts to spread fake news on Twitter and in texts that the Trump administration was planning to lock the country down. In mid-March, the National Security Council countered the rumors that say on Twitter that they were fake.
“Ultimately, China does not hesitate to use smoke, mirrors, and misdirection to influence Americans,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a July address at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington.
China has extended the new tactic to other countries. In a report entitled “Operation Naval Gazing“Social media research firm Graphika identified Facebook posts praising China’s generosity in offering coronavirus vaccines in the Philippines and praising its President Rodrigo Duterte after saying it was China”in possession“of the South China Sea.
China’s disinformation campaigns clearly have yet to be refined. In August 2019, Twitter deleted 936 troll accounts linked to Chinese state actors. The reports, some claimed to be from US cities, fueled conspiracy theories about pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Little effort has been made to make the reports appear as plausible human personas an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Many of the accounts have previously been used to post spam-like business promotional links, and they tweeted in a variety of languages including Chinese, Indonesian, Arabic, English, and Spanish.
Graphika researchers identified a bogus pro-Chinese network called “Spamouflage dragon, “who posted awkwardly English-language videos this summer attacking US politics and the Trump administration on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The videos, which had robotic voice-over in English, criticized the US for issues such as the treatment of Anti by the police racism protesters.
But the videos couldn’t attract any audience.
“I have not yet found a spamouflage video in which I could reliably prove that a real person was involved. All the involvement came from other members of the operation,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika.
China’s direct efforts to influence the presidential election have been limited. In its “Naval Gazing” research, Graphika analyzed a group of fake Facebook and Instagram groups, pages and profiles attributed to people in China covering a wide range of topics, including the US election. However, the reports focused far more on issues such as maritime safety in the South China Sea.
Only three groups discussed the US election directly, including one founded in April 2019 entitled “Go for Pete Buttigieg 2020”, which only had two members last month. In mid-2020, the operation formed a group called Trump KAG 2020, which posted pro-Trump news, and another called Biden Harris 2020. When Facebook shut down its pages earlier last month, the Biden Harris page had 1,400 members and the Trump group three.
“I would ask if the goal was to influence the election,” said Nimmo. “With three groups with a total membership of less than 1,500, you’re not going to compromise the American Internet.”
Some experts suggest viewing the election as a testing ground for Chinese information operations. “It was a ‘throw it all and see what’s inside’ approach,” said Chloe Colliver, director of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an institute for anti-extremism policy in London.
John Ratcliffe, director of the National Intelligence Service, briefed Congressional intelligence committees last month, saying dozens of lawmakers have been harder hit by Chinese influence campaigns, a fact first reported by The Hill Newspaper.
An intelligence official who was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified said the intelligence community had “become aware of operations with Chinese influence targeting members of Congress about six times as often in Russia and twelve times as often as in Iran. “
However, the senior Congressional official, briefed on intelligence issues, said China’s efforts to influence lawmakers are not aimed at influencing the choice of one candidate over another, but rather to expose the shortcomings in the US to a large extent. The approach will only increase, national security officials said. and it will go beyond propaganda and social media.
“China is involved in a sophisticated campaign against malicious foreign influence, the methods of which include bribery, extortion and undercover deals,” Wray, the FBI director, said in July. “Chinese diplomats are using open, bare economic pressure as well as seemingly independent middlemen to impose China’s preferences on American officials.”