Yet, this week, China didn’t feature in the latest warning about election interference.
“China studied what the Russians did in 2016 very closely,” said cybersecurity expert James Lewis, a former foreign service officer at the Departments of State and Commerce. “They’d like to be able to do what the Russians do, but they aren’t that good at it.”
However, experts predict that China’s influence operations will become more formidable in the coming decades. They warn China will own more parts of the global telecommunications networks and export its system of censorship and propaganda to other governments.
According to Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and information warfare expert who testified before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, Chinese influence operations “will be more prolific over time and successful over time because they can control the entire information environment, which is different from the Russians.”
In August, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said China had never interfered in a US election and “had no interest to do that in the future.”
The difference now, of course, is that those tactics have moved online.
The IRA bought troves of Facebook ads and flooded Twitter with posts that boosted Trump and denigrated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. In mid-2014, employees from the IRA even traveled to the US to get information and photographs to use in their social media posts.
Using domestic tactics overseas
But as China’s economic and political ambitions have grown, the country has increasingly applied domestic propaganda tactics to target global audiences — ironically, using platforms it blocks at home, such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter.
So far, this has been with limited success. Right now, China’s disinformation efforts are “sloppy and get caught very easily,” said Watts.
While China has set up a vast censorship and propaganda apparatus at home, the country does not have as much practice manipulating foreign social media platforms. “They’re used to playing on a field where they control the terrain,” says Nimmo, of Graphika. “It’s a steep learning curve.”
The pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong last year, however, appeared to have accelerated China’s focus on global influence operations. As international news organizations reported on demonstrations in the city and protesters’ demands for more civil liberties, Beijing launched a state-backed disinformation campaign about the protests on Western platforms.
Some of Russia’s strategies were also on display in the first public disclosures of Chinese influence operations pushing content about global issues that matter to China, such as the South China Sea, but also the 2020 US election.
Activity around US politics only began in April 2019, when the operation started making Facebook profiles to pass as actual Americans on both sides of the aisle. For instance, “Kate Selina” was one of the fake profiles that posed as a conservative American, and shared posts criticizing Medicare-for-all and gun control policies. A liberal account posted that President Barack Obama “is my best president ever,” while also sharing a meme of Trump with the words “nobody likes me” right next to his face.
The network also created Facebook pages for various US presidential candidates, including one supporting former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The page only had two members. The operation also created a Biden-Harris group that had around 1,400 members. The Trump group only attracted three followers. In contrast, leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election, some pages run by Russia’s IRA attracted hundreds of thousands of followers each.
According to Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, which worked with Facebook to analyze the accounts, the US-focused part of the operation from China appeared “to be in the audience-building stage.” The network did not push for one candidate over another. The purpose could have been to draw attention and build an audience in order to push pro-Beijing content to the groups in the future.
China also faces another challenge: it is starting its influence operations in the West when social media platforms, law enforcement and independent researchers have increased efforts to detect fake activity. “China is coming to the game later, when defenses are a lot stronger,” Nimmo said.
Russia cares more
If China’s threat is less severe than Russia’s, that’s partly because in the past, it simply hasn’t cared as much about US elections. The next president won’t change Washington’s bipartisan consensus to be tough on China.
Russia’s narrative is also more divisive. It’s been pushing predictions of widespread election rigging and fraud via mail-in-balloting, according to Watts, the former FBI special agent.
“Russia has a clear bridge to America. They have consistently communicated and connected with Americans to influence them and support policies and candidates favorable to them,” Watts said. “China has no such aims. There’s no presidential candidate — not Biden or Trump — especially post Covid, that’s going to improve relations with China.”
In the long-term, what makes China a potentially greater threat than Russia is its involvement in the global communications infrastructure, and the software that sits atop of it. Over the past decade, Chinese state-owned or affiliated companies have built internet, television and phone networks for scores of foreign governments, especially in developing countries.
China aims to reframe global opinion of the country, and according to Watts, China has more compelling global narrative to tell than Russia’s approach of “degrading democracy worldwide and breaking up alliances” without offering a substitute. “China is going around and saying, ‘Why democracy? Let’s talk about meritocracy. Human rights? America isn’t handling Covid, and it can’t help its low-income people.'”
Professor Titus Chen of the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan expects that in the developing world, China’s message will eventually become as accepted as information from established media.
But in the West, Beijing’s persuasion will be limited, he says.
“This is not a regime type or government that people in the world — or at least the Western world — want,” Chen said. “So how do you spin it? It’s quite a daunting task for a propaganda system.”
For both Russia and China, the job of fanning fake information and creating divisions in society has been made easy, by a sitting President who frequently tweets and says misleading things.
For Watts, the biggest threats on election day will be domestic, not foreign.