China’s Deceptive Use of Social Media to Manipulate American Society

China is at it again, using technology to escalate racial tensions in the United States. Writing for Engadget, journalist Igor Bonifacic revealed that “ . . .security researchers from Google and cybersecurity firm Mandiant disclosed that a network of fake pro-China social media accounts tried to mobilize Americans to attend anti-racism protests in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
As reported in Fireye, “In June 2019, Mandiant Threat Intelligence first reported to customers a pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC) network of hundreds of inauthentic accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, that was at that time primarily focused on discrediting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.” 

However, over time, the mission broadened. As Bonifacic reports, in “one instance it tried to push Asian-Americans to attend an April 24th protest that sought to ‘fight back’ against claims the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab.” The Center for Information Resilience (CIR) reports that “[T]he aim of the network appears to be to delegitimize the West by amplifying pro-Chinese narratives.” Specifically, CIR claims “The network targets significant subjects such as US gun laws, COVID-19, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, overseas conflicts and racial discrimination in an apparent bid to inflame tensions, deny remarks critical of China, and target Western governments.”

Although we can’t be certain the Chinese government is directly behind this latest scheme, there is good reason to be suspicious they are playing a major role in the disinformation and propaganda campaign. In fact, John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at Mandiant, told The Wall Street Journal the operation was “almost certainly supported by a government sponsor, either directly through a government agency or a third-party contractor.”

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China has systematically exploited social media to influence American society Source:

The reality is that these types of moves by China have been going on for quite some time. According to Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG), China has been working to gain influence over American society and politics in an organized and persistent manner:

“Since last summer, TAG has tracked a large spam network linked to China attempting to run an influence operation, primarily on YouTube. This network has a presence across multiple platforms, and acts by primarily acquiring or hijacking existing accounts and posting spammy content in Mandarin such as videos of animals, music, food, plants, sports, and games.”

Other sources corroborate the scope and magnitude of the Chinese interference, rivaling and even exceeding Russia’s meddling. The Stanford Internet Observatory Cyber Policy Center (SIOCPC) states:

“China’s online activities frequently support offline influence operations that make extensive use of in-person networks of human agents of influence, overtly attributed state media in English and other non-Chinese languages, and “grey propaganda” with less obviously attributable ties to the mainland. This robust and well-resourced collection of tools should equip China to execute integrated influence operations on a scale that Russia cannot match.”

Although China’s efforts to sway the political direction of the United States have thus far been arguably ineffective due to low overall engagement, there is reason to be concerned regarding their penchant for persistence.

Shane Huntley, director of Google’s TAG told Engadget, “Over the past two years, we have seen this threat actor evolve, from the types of content they publish to the tactics they use to amplify it. However, the most significant features of this network remain its scale and persistence, in spite of low engagement levels,” adding, “We anticipate they will continue to experiment to drive higher engagement and encourage others in the community to continue tracking this actor, shedding light on their operations and taking action against them.”

China seems particularly adept at using a broad and diverse collection of social media platforms in an effort to reach as many audiences and demographics as possible. In the past, they relied heavily on big hitters, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This time, however, according to Engadget, “ . . .they cast a wide net, creating accounts across more than 30 social media platforms and 40 additional websites and ‘niche’ forums, including places like LiveJournal and Vimeo. They also tried to reach a global audience by posting in Russian, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese, in addition to Chinese and English.”

Amidst the rising tide of suspicion about the intent of China with regard to its propaganda campaigns, corporations and their lobbyists’ arms are scrambling to keep relations positive with trading partners, running afoul of President Biden’s and Congress’ overall policy stances and rhetoric.

As Politico reports: “Efforts from the corporate lobbyists seek to blunt the rising economic aggression toward Beijing emanating from Congress and the Biden administration that’s seen the president retain most of his predecessor’s aggressive trade policies, much to industry’s chagrin.”

Yet, China keenly understands how social media plays an increasing role in how American’s get their news. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately half of Americans say they get news from social media. This is problematic because the content and accuracy of social media news are often questionable. 

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Moreover, even when the content is reliable and accurate, there are issues with how people access this content. According to Forbes, “there has been a decrease in how much of an article that people read. Most people will just scroll through their newsfeed and stumble upon relevant news content but just read the headlines or a short video clip of the piece. An average visitor will only read an article for 15 seconds or less and the average video watch time online is 10 seconds.”

While no one is immune, teens are a particularly vulnerable population due to their dependence on social media for a combination of entertainment and information, the lines of which are often indistinguishable. A recent report by the American Psychological Association found “less than 20 percent of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent say they use social media every day.” The Huffington Post frames it this way:

In a time when social media blurs the line between reality and fantasy it’s hard to distinguish what is genuine anymore. Whether it’s a relationship, career, friendship or lifestyle, we have forgotten how to accept life for what it truly is… imperfect and flawed. It’s as simple as a few well-taken photos and one can paint a picture of the quintessential life. We choose to hide the mistakes, the flaws, the less than perfect moments in a desperate attempt to prove ourselves.

This superficial and sometimes illusory approach to reading creates consumers who on the surface appear to have a broad command of information, but in reality, know very little about the complexities of an issue. In essence, people read in a somewhat cognitively lazy manner, not taking the time to understand deeply what they are reading nor make connections amongst the major points.

As Scientific American puts it, “When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.” 

This combination of short, undirected, and often undemanding reading makes it easier for misinformation campaigns, such as ones engineered by the Chinese, to penetrate our national conversations and broader social interactions. 

Worse still, much like a virus, news that is flatly false spreads quickly among readers, gaining momentum quickly via the sharing features inherent in social media. An investigation by Science Magazine found “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”

Despite its failures to deeply impact our society thus far, the Chinese government remains vigilant and focused on the long game in a responsive and flexible manner. As SIOCPC warns us, “China’s potential to refine and increase its capabilities, however, remains of significant concern to liberal democracies. We can expect it to learn, iterate, and adapt, availing itself of new avenues for coordinated information operations as they become available.”

As we become increasingly polarized in the United States, perhaps going forward, we should keep in mind the words of the legendary Chinese military leader and philosopher Sun Tzu, who said, “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” 

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