WASHINGTON — China, Russia and Iran are using state-sponsored media to attack the U.S. over the George Floyd killing and the resulting civil unrest, but there is no evidence of a covert online influence operation similar to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a report released Wednesday by a private firm.
The U.S. adversaries are using the turmoil on traditional and social media “in a way that furthers their existing narratives, rather than stoking American divisions,” says the report by Graphika, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze huge volumes of social media traffic.
All three countries used their substantial online editorial presences to criticize the Floyd killing, the police reaction to protests, and President Donald Trump. But their aims appeared to be different, the report says.
“China’s primary goal appears to be to discredit U.S. criticism of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Iran’s primary goals appear to be to discredit U.S. criticism of Iran’s human-rights record and to attack U.S. sanctions,” the report says. “Russian state-controlled outlets largely focused on the facts of the protests, in line with a longstanding practice of covering protests in the West; some individual pieces of editorial content also attacked Kremlin critics and the mainstream media.”
On Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, drew attention to the issue of foreign social media activity when he tweeted:
"Tonight seeing VERY heavy social media activity on #protests & counter reactions from social media accounts linked to at least 3 foreign adversaries. They didn’t create these divisions. But they are actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles."
A congressional aide later said the committee had received information from Graphika. But Graphika said it did not find evidence of a concerted disinformation effort by U.S. adversaries.
“There is no evidence as yet to suggest a large-scale, covert interference campaign like those the Russian Internet Research Agency waged against the United States from 2014 until at least early 2020,” the report said.
China, for example, blasted the U.S. for alleged hypocrisy in a series of editorials in state-sponsored media.
One editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper saw the unrest and the official reaction as “a vivid demonstration of American ‘double standards’ and the country's deteriorating political environment. On the one hand, protests over the death of an unarmed African American man in Minneapolis police custody have spread around the U.S.; on the other, the U.S. has threatened to impose economic sanctions on Hong Kong.”
But Graphika found “no indication in the map, or in any of our current investigations to date, of a substantial covert online influence operation stoking divisions in the United States or pushing Chinese government propaganda by masquerading as Americans.”
The report added, “It should be noted that the latest known pro-Chinese government messaging information operations on social media have been marked by their clumsy and spammy approach; such covert operations would be unlikely to play a substantial role in stoking the American protests on the ground.”
Iranian accounts also openly criticized the U.S. and drew attention to the Floyd killing, embracing the hashtag #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. But Graphika did not find evidence of a secret campaign.
Russian state media “focused on the facts on the ground, in line with a practice of highlighting genuine grievances and protests in the West; some editorials focused on prominent Kremlin critics, notably the mainstream media, former U.S. President Barack Obama, and human-rights NGO Human Rights Watch,” the report said.
A graphic in the state-sponsored Sputnik newspaper said, “America 2020: Where anti-racists are terrorists and racists are president.”
The report noted that Russian covert information operations have a long history of targeting African American grievances, including in 2016, when the Internet Research Agency focused heavily on the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, Graphika said: “As yet, there is no evidence to support the claim of covert Russian interference in the protests. It is important that such claims not be made or amplified unless there is evidence to support them, as they can be used to falsely discredit and de-legitimize genuine activists.”