China has its sights set on the U.S. midterm elections.
Ahead of November’s vote, a social media influence operation originating in the world’s second-largest economy targeted American voters of both major parties, according to a report released Tuesday by Meta.
The activity — which ran between November 2021 and September 2022 — used fake social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to peddle partisan messaging on hot-button topics like abortion rights and the COVID-19 pandemic, often targeting swing states like Florida, based on Meta’s analysis.
The China-based influence campaign also accused U.S. President Joe Biden of corruption, while criticizing leading Republican politicians like Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for not supporting gun-rights reforms.
The yearlong effort to sway U.S. voters marks a step change in how Chinese actors operate online.
Previously, such influence campaigns have focused primarily on rebuking U.S. foreign policy and warning against isolating China on the global stage. Yet the most recent social media activity, which received little attention from legitimate U.S. voters and was shut down by the social media companies for violating their policies before it could have any meaningful impact, highlights China’s evolving online strategy to sow dissent and distrust within the United States.
“Part of the reason for exposing [this campaign] is to raise that flag and say, on hot button issues like abortion and gun control, here’s an operation that was trying to hit both sides,” Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, told POLITICO. “Let’s all just be a little bit wary. Let’s make sure we don’t take our eye off the ball.”
Meta did not give details on how it associated the covert influence campaign with individuals based in China, nor could it directly attribute the activity to specific groups like the Chinese Communist Party. As part of its report, the social media giant said it had used a number of factors, including some of the fake social media posts being written in Chinese, often during the working day in China, to link the activity to somewhere within the authoritarian country.
“It’s a combination of different technical and behavioral indicators we use [that cross reference] with each other and point [in] the same direction,” Nimmo added.
Despite its failure to attract legitimate American social media users, the China-based influence campaign centered its efforts on the ongoing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans that has only deepened ahead of the midterm elections. A U.S. intelligence report in the wake of the 2020 presidential election said that Beijing had not used interference campaigns to sway would-be voters, unlike Russia, which had used its covert tactics to support former President Donald Trump.
The China-related influence campaign worked in multiple stages.
Starting in March, for instance, fake social media users posing as conservative voters peppered Facebook with memes attacking U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and climate envoy John Kerry. They also wrote separate posts that accused Washington of building bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine and called for further restrictions on abortion rights. Such activity, however, garnered almost no social media engagement, such as comments or likes, from legitimate social media users.
A month later, the China-based actors switched tactics to pretend to be Democratic-leaning voters. They posted repeatedly as if they were based in Florida, Texas and California in favor of gun-rights reform and greater protections for abortion rights, according to Meta’s findings. This, too, was not picked up by others across social media platforms. The same covert influence campaign subsequently turned its attention to the Czech Republic, where it openly criticized Prague’s support for Ukraine in its war with Russia and the country’s foreign policy toward China.
For Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think tank, it is significant that China was possibly revamping its influence tactics to target a domestic U.S. audience — even if the activity, thwarted by Meta and other social media companies, failed to sway U.S. voters. It suggests a shift from focusing on topics that directly affect Beijing to those linked to partisan U.S. politics.
“In the past when we’ve seen China weigh in on ostensibly domestic issues like police brutality, it’s always had a China flavor to it,” said Schafer, who was not involved in Meta’s research. “But if this new activity is indicative of a larger strategy, I think it would indicate a bit of a sea change.”
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