Author: Gvantsa Chachanidze
In the ever-evolving landscape of social media, the battle against covert actions has taken center stage in the digital space as nations navigate the complex terrain of influence campaigns. Russia’s efforts to manipulate public opinion and shape adversaries’ internal and foreign policies have long been observed and analyzed. However, there is relatively less discussion on Chinese malicious activities in the information sphere.
In 2017, the People’s Republic of China began disseminating disinformation on social media platforms beyond its mainland, primarily focusing on influencing elites and cultivating a positive image. During COVID-19, the PRC started following a similar playbook to Russia and became a more aggressive player by openly targeting the United States and the European Union, actively undermining their capabilities and simultaneously promoting conspiracy theories. This was the first time China directly copied Russian tactics. Nowadays Chinese maneuvers in cyberspace are becoming increasingly alarming. In the past, the main cyberthreats from the PRC were intellectual property theft and cyber-espionage. The COVID-19 disinformation campaigns were viewed as an exemption from the rule, or a defensive response from China in attempts to shift the narrative of the Chinese Communist Party mishandling the original outbreak of the virus. However, as recently disclosed in Meta’s Third Quarter Adversarial Threat Report, China’s covert efforts now aim to manipulate public opinion, specifically in the context of the upcoming U.S. 2024 presidential election. It is extremely important to unravel the intricacies of China’s information warfare strategy, its similarity to Russian methods, its tactics, and the potential implications for democratic processes.
The Third Quarter Adversarial Threat Report and Chinese Fake Accounts
On November 30, Meta released the Third Quarter Adversarial Threat Report. The document states that the company removed 4,789 fake accounts based in China that were impersonating U.S. citizens debating deeply sensitive internal political issues on Facebook. Meta warned that this was an attempt to reach audiences and gain influence ahead of the upcoming U.S. 2024 presidential election. The PRC thus seems to be copying the Russian influence activities employed during the 2016 presidential election, when Kremlin trolls posted divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum.
The Chinese network also used fake names and profile pictures lifted from elsewhere on the internet. These accounts copied and pasted partisan political context from X, previously known as Twitter. The copied content included posts by both Republican and Democrat politicians like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Governors Gretchen Whitmer, and Kristi Noem, Senators Mark Kelly and Marsha Blackburn, and Representatives Sylvia Garcia and Jim Jordan.
According to the report, it remains uncertain whether this strategy was intended to deepen pre-existing partisan tensions, cultivate audiences within the supporters of these politicians, or enhance the credibility of fake accounts sharing authentic content.
In addition, fake Chinese accounts engaged in liking and reposting content from real Facebook users on various subjects, such as games, fashion models, and pets. Through these actions, fake accounts establish trust, as they familiarize themselves with users and displace relatability.
Lastly, the material disseminated by these networks was not necessarily false; it referred to factual news stories from prominent media sources. However, rather than being utilized for genuine commentary or discussion, the posts were designed to manipulate public opinion and create an illusion that certain viewpoints were more popular than in reality – something that was previously done by Russian fake accounts.
The above-mentioned behaviors indicated a purpose to establish a network of seemingly genuine accounts, potentially with the aim of promoting coordinated narratives and disinformation in the future. Russian influence campaigns in social media urged states to increase citizens’ social media literacy. People are relatively well aware of fake accounts and bots, therefore, malicious actors had to employ more complex and intricate tactics, or in the other words, play a long game. Openly spreading fake news with no foundational trust from the engaged community would be less effective; the outcome only changes if users relate to the initial authentic, but somewhat polarizing, content and believe in the “genuineness” of the fake account. This method tricks users into trusting deceptive actors and being open to any disinformation they spread, as their previously reposted materials were somewhat truthful or relatable.
Chinese influential operations in cyberspace are not limited to the upcoming U.S. election. Back in August, Meta addressed a previous disinformation campaign related to China. The company announced the removal of more than 7,700 Facebook accounts associated with the Chinese Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) network, previously characterized as the “largest known cross-platform covert influence operation globally”. After Russia and Iran, the People’s Republic of China has become the third most common geographic source for CIB on Facebook and other social media platforms.
In September, another big tech company – Microsoft – linked China to the spread of conspiracy theories, stating that the U.S. government intentionally ignited the deadly wildfires in Hawaii. According to the report, China’s state-sponsored propaganda efforts involved more than 230 influencers posing as independent social media figures, reaching at least 103 million people across various platforms in over 40 languages.
The PRC started spreading conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing fingers at the U.S. for originating and spreading the virus. Even though these claims had no reasonable grounds, they effectively served their purpose – creating confusion and chaos in the information sphere. It allowed China to not only shift the narrative and therefore blame to its adversary, but overall to undermine the global image of the United States. Even though Chinese officials promote their foreign policy as a win-win cooperation, the truth is, non-democratic states view international politics as a zero-sum game: Sabotaging adversaries elevates their power and image.
Since COVID-19, China has developed new, more sophisticated tools to conduct information warfare. This includes Artificial Intelligence. The PRC is now using AI to generate images for influence operations. Meta has already taken down a cluster of accounts linked to the China-based influence operation “Spamouflage” that was reported by researchers at Graphika to have used AI-generated newsreaders in their videos on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This technology creates high-quality, viral content across social networks, focusing on politically divisive topics, and denigrating political figures. PRC-based accounts have generated various images on topics like Black Lives Matter and gun laws, which notably were more popular among accounts than authentic images. This clearly shows the impact the development of new technology can have on shaping public discourse during information warfare, and how AI can be utilized in attempts to polarize societies.
China’s potential attempts to influence the 2024 U.S. presidential election cannot be overlooked, especially because they mimic certain aspects of Russian social media activities during the 2016 presidential election. If in 2016 Russian “troll farm,” created fake accounts, posted divisive content, bought political ads, and used hashtags to influence public opinion on topics like Black Lives Matter, immigration and gun control, in 2023, Chinese fake accounts have been sharing posts on different viewpoints on abortion, healthcare and various social issues. These activities aim to polarize the society, impact the political landscape, influence their adversary’s domestic and foreign policies, and overall undermine their power and global image. Needless to say, it is part of the Chinese strategy, which goes against the unipolar world order and promotes a multipolar one. However, as a true authoritarian regime, the PRC follows the zero-sum playbook, counting on malicious covert actions that weaken other players in order to increase their own comparative power, rather than taking part in a just competition.
Due to the overall increase in social media literacy, the PRC is putting more effort into influence campaigns. Chinese fake accounts took a complex approach, a long-game route, and started with an attempt to build trust in the community, mimicking authentic users’ behavior and sharing already existing, but highly polarizing posts. As Meta declared in its Third Quarter Adversarial Threat Report, a large Chinese fake account network was removed prior to gaining influence on real users, however, it is highly unlikely this will put Chinese influence efforts to an end.
Social media companies, especially Meta and X, play a significant role in the cyber domain. Given their powerful position, these platforms bear a responsibility to actively address and eliminate any foreign influence or malicious activities that may compromise the integrity of their networks. The 2016 presidential election clearly illustrated that the impact of such activities can extend beyond the digital realm, influencing public opinion, political landscapes, and societal norms. Therefore, during the upcoming election, Meta should continue to implement robust measures, employ advanced technologies, and inform relevant authorities to safeguard their platforms against cyber threats, propaganda, disinformation or any other malicious activities.