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China's influence operations offer a glimpse into the future of information warfare

Intelligence experts are monitoring the "competition between democratic systems and autocratic systems of government."
Image: A Chinese flag, glitchy and pixelated.
Scholars say the Chinese are growing bolder and more brazen, often taking pages from what used to be seen as Russia's playbook. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

While U.S. intelligence experts generally agree that Russia is better than any other country at spreading disinformation to undermine voter confidence leading up to the election, security experts have been preoccupied with a longer-term threat. They fear that the Chinese government's disinformation operations pose a far more insidious menace to democracy that will continue well past Election Day.

Scholars studying the efforts say the Chinese are growing bolder and more brazen, often taking pages from what used to be seen as Russia's playbook in discrediting the United States. It's a pattern so troubling to global intelligence officials that last week, Ken McCallum, the incoming intelligence chief of the British domestic security service, MI5, said that if Russia's influence operations are like bad weather, China's growing operations are like climate change — far more destructive.

"We are in a competition between democratic systems and autocratic systems of government," said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the nonprofit German Marshall Fund of the United States, who follows the changing dynamics. "China has grown in its geopolitical and economic clout and is trying to portray itself as a system that is equally legitimate to democratic governance. That is fundamentally in opposition to U.S. interests."

While Chinese government officials vigorously deny that they are interfering in the presidential election, they also stress that they plan to preserve their reputation on the global stage.

"We are not interested and have never interfered in the U.S. presidential election," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing Sept. 23. "On the contrary — the world sees clearly who has been wantonly meddling in other countries' domestic affairs."

Shifting front-runners

Russia has used disinformation methods to covertly sow division and conspiracy theories in the U.S. for decades, experts said. In the internet age, that has translated into paying operatives to manipulate public opinion through social media.

It also includes a large English-language propaganda network, which includes Russian television and related websites. Those websites seek to promote stories that both aggravate political tensions in the U.S. and cast the country in an especially bad light to the rest of the world by highlighting its violent protests, its racial strife and what the sites portray as its governmental incompetence.

China's information operations historically have focused more on elevating China's global standing than on attacking the U.S. and the West. As trade relationships increase around the globe, China does not want to appear as a rogue operator, experts said. It wants to make sure its global counterparts recognize its geopolitical strength.

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"Basically, the only business we do with Russia is arms control and purchases of Stolichnaya vodka," said a senior congressional official briefed on intelligence matters who was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified. "The Russians want to take us down with them. The Chinese can't afford to see us in chaos, because we are their biggest market. They are trying to accelerate the relative decline of the United States and their ascension to primacy."

To do that, the Chinese Communist Party has been building what it calls "discourse power" by shaping a narrative that its model of government is superior to democratic government structures. The goal, experts said, is to develop more influence overseas, particularly among America's political and military allies in Southeast Asia, who have been alienated by President Donald Trump, and to ultimately replace the U.S. as the dominant world power.

"The infrastructure and bureaucracy from China is more designed to present their point of view and persuade potentially sympathetic audiences around the world, especially in diaspora communities," said Graham Bookie, the acting director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit international affairs think tank.

Changing tactics

Over the last 18 months, however, the Chinese have started to take pages from Russia's playbook. Bookie said they have been using both covert and overt tactics to manipulate public opinion, including outright disinformation.

"We have seen more of a willingness to engage in more aggressive influence operations, including some of the stuff we would associate with Russia," Bookie said.

For example, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese agents created fake social media accounts to push out false messages on Twitter and in texts that the Trump administration was planning to lock down the country. In mid-March, the National Security Council countered the rumors, saying on Twitter that they were fake.

"Ultimately, China doesn't hesitate to use smoke, mirrors and misdirection to influence Americans," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech in July to the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

China has extended the new tactics to other countries. In a report titled "Operation Naval Gazing," the social media research company Graphika identified Facebook posts praising China's generosity in offering coronavirus vaccines to the Philippines and commending its president, Rodrigo Duterte, after he said China was "in possession" of the South China Sea.

Bungled alliances

China's disinformation campaigns still clearly need refining. In August 2019, Twitter took down 936 troll accounts that it linked to Chinese state actors. The accounts, some of which claimed to be from U.S. cities, pushed conspiracy theories about pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Little effort was put into making the accounts seem like plausible human personas, according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Many of the accounts had previously been used to push spamlike promotional links for companies, and they would tweet in a wide range of languages, including Chinese, Indonesian, Arabic, English and Spanish.

Researchers at Graphika identified an inauthentic pro-Chinese network called "Spamouflage Dragon," which over the summer posted clumsily made English-language videos attacking U.S. policy and the Trump administration on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The videos, which had robotic voice-overs in English, criticized the U.S. over issues like how police were treating anti-racism protesters.

But the videos failed to attract any viewers.

"I've not yet found a Spamouflage video where I could reliably demonstrate that a real person engaged with it. All the engagement was from other members of the operation," said Graphika's director of investigations, Ben Nimmo.

Limited interference

China's direct efforts to influence the presidential election have been limited. In its "Naval Gazing" research, Graphika analyzed a cluster of fake Facebook and Instagram groups, pages and profiles attributed to individuals in China that posted about many issues, including the U.S. election. However, the accounts focused far more on topics like maritime security in the South China Sea.

Only three groups actually directly discussed the U.S. election, including one created in April 2019 called "Go for Pete Buttigieg 2020," which had only two members by last month. In mid-2020, the operation created a group called Trump KAG 2020, which posted pro-Trump messaging, and another called Biden Harris 2020. When Facebook took the pages down early last month, the Biden Harris page had 1,400 members, and the Trump group had three.

"I would question whether the goal was election interference," Nimmo said. "You're not going to make a dent on the American internet with three groups with a combined membership of less than 1,500 people."

Dry run

Some experts suggest thinking of the election as a testing ground for Chinese information operations. "It's been a 'throw everything at the wall and see what sticks' approach," said Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism policy institute in London.

Briefing the congressional intelligence committees last month, National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe said dozens of lawmakers had been more broadly targeted 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 "has become aware of Chinese influence operations targeting members of Congress at a rate of approximately six times that of Russia and 12 times that of Iran."

Still, the senior congressional official who was briefed on intelligence matters said, China's efforts to influence lawmakers are intended not to influence the election of one candidate over another but to broadly expose flaws in the U.S. The approach will only grow, national security officials said, and it will go beyond propaganda and social media.

"China is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign, and its methods include bribery, blackmail and covert deals," Wray, the FBI director, said in July. "Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China's preferences on American officials."