A sprawling online propaganda campaign that pushes pro-China messaging has been trying to influence American voters, researchers say.
Two companies that study large-scale online influence operations published research this week showing that a pro-China campaign was active and targeting the U.S. midterm elections as recently as this month. Researchers found fake accounts across the internet that sought to spread messaging such as the superiority of the Chinese state and denigrating American democracy.
So far, there’s no evidence that the influence operation has been effective. But such efforts show that pro-China influence operations targeting the West are experimenting with new tactics and are increasingly aimed at shaping American elections.
Mandiant, a cybersecurity company recently acquired by Google, said in a report published Wednesday that researchers found 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 on which it found the videos and other posts, and say whether they included YouTube, which is also owned by Google.
The general focus of the political posts echoed that of Russian information operations that tried to inflame U.S. partisan infighting, especially ahead of the 2016 and 2018 elections. The Justice Department charged both Russian intelligence officers and a private company with ties to the Kremlin with leading those operations.
While the videos and posts from the pro-China campaign weren’t widely viewed, some explicitly promoted civil war and political violence in the U.S., said John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of intelligence analysis.
“They’re very aggressive. They seem to be very well resourced, if not very effective,” Hultquist said.
“They’re trying to put protesters on the streets of the United States, which is pretty brash,” he added.
The other report, from social media analytics firm Alethea, found 165 Twitter accounts that misled users about who they were and posted pro-China messages in English. About a third of those accounts posted inflammatory content about U.S. elections, including claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Some echoed right-wing extremist content and alluded to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Lee Foster, Alethea’s senior vice president of analysis, said that if China’s government was behind that Twitter campaign, it shows Beijing has “an increasing willingness to engage with domestic U.S. politics.”
In an email, a Twitter spokesperson said the company had removed the accounts after Alethea flagged them, and that it has since banned “hundreds” of related accounts.
Both Mandiant and Alethea said the evidence they had gathered stopped short of explicitly tying the campaigns to the Chinese government, but that the campaign’s messaging aligned closely with with Beijing’s foreign policy aims, including criticism of Chinese dissidents and of Western companies that have clashed with China over rare earth mineral mining.
In an emailed statement, the spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington D.C., Liu Pengyu, denied China was responsible for any foreign election interference efforts.
“China has always adhered to non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said.
“Speculating or accusing China of using social media to interfere in the US midterm elections is completely groundless and malicious speculation. China demands that relevant parties stop malicious speculation and unreasonable accusations against China," he added.
Dakota Cary, a China specialist at the Krebs Stamos group, a cybersecurity consultancy, said that there was little doubt 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 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, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, removed 83 inauthentic accounts that similarly advocated pro-China stances and looked to sow doubts about U.S. elections.
In a midterms warning earlier this month, the FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced 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.”
Such information operations are much more likely than actual cyberattacks on election infrastructure in 2022, officials from those agencies have said.