China's advances to influence US elections are raising alarm bells

Secret Chinese accounts are masquerading online as American supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, promoting conspiracy theories, stoking internal divisions and attacking President Biden ahead of the November election, according to researchers and government officials.

The reports signal a potential tactical shift in how Beijing aims to influence American politics, with a greater willingness to target specific candidates and parties, including Biden.

Echoing Russia's influence campaign before the 2016 election, China appears to be seeking to exploit partisan divisions to undermine the Biden administration's policies, despite the two countries' recent efforts to lower the temperature in their relations.

Some Chinese accounts pose as fervent Trump fans, including one on The accounts mocked Mr. Biden's age and shared fake images of him in a prison jumpsuit, or claimed that Mr. Biden was a Satanist pedophile while promoting Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“I've never seen anything like this before,” said Elise Thomas, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research organization that has uncovered a small group of fake accounts posing as supporters of Trump.

Ms. Thomas and other researchers linked the new activity to a long-standing account network linked to the Chinese government known as Spamouflage. Many of the detailed accounts had previously published pro-Beijing content in Mandarin, only to resurface in recent months in the guise of real Americans writing in English.

In a separate project, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research body, identified 170 inauthentic pages and accounts on Facebook that also spread anti-American messages, including targeted attacks on Biden.

The effort has more successfully attracted the attention of actual users and has become more difficult for researchers to identify than previous Chinese efforts to influence public opinion in the United States. Although researchers say the overall political direction of the campaign remains unclear, this has raised the possibility that the Chinese government is calculating that a second Trump presidency, despite his sometimes hostile statements against the country, might be preferable to a second Biden mandate.

China's activity has already raised alarm within the American government.

In February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that China was expanding its influence campaigns to “sow doubt about U.S. leadership, undermine democracy, and extend Beijing's influence.” The report expresses concern that Beijing may use increasingly sophisticated methods to try to influence US elections “to sideline China's critics.”

Ms. Thomas, who has studied China's information operations for years, said the new effort suggests a more subtle and sophisticated approach than previous campaigns. It was the first time, she said, that she had encountered Chinese accounts that posed so convincingly as Trump-supporting Americans while at the same time managing to attract genuine engagement.

“The concern has always been: What if one day they wake up and become effective?” she said. “Potentially, this could be the beginning of their awakening and effectiveness.”

Online disinformation experts are looking at the months leading up to the November elections with growing anxiety.

Intelligence assessments show Russia using increasingly subtle influence tactics in the United States to spread its cause of isolationism as it continues its war against Ukraine. Fictitious news sites target Americans with Russian propaganda.

Efforts to push back against false narratives and conspiracy theories – already a difficult task – must now also contend with declining moderation efforts on social media platforms, political resistance, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence technology and extensive information fatigue.

Until now, China's efforts to advance its ideology in the West have struggled to gain traction, first when it pushed its official propaganda about the superiority of its culture and economy and then when it began to denigrate democracy and fuel the anti-American sentiment.

In the 2022 midterm elections, cybersecurity firm Mandiant reported that Dragonbridge, an influence campaign linked to China, sought to discourage Americans from voting while highlighting the political polarization of the United States. That campaign, which experimented with posting first-person content by fake American personas, was poorly executed and widely overlooked online, researchers said.

Recent China-related campaigns have sought to exploit divisions already evident in American politics, joining the divisive debate over issues such as gay rights, immigration and crime, primarily from a right-wing perspective.

In February, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a China-linked account on that Mr. Biden and the Central Intelligence Agency had sent a neo-Nazi gangster to fight in Ukraine. (That narrative was debunked by the Bellingcat investigative group.)

The next day the post received a huge boost when Alex Jones, the podcaster known for spreading false claims and conspiracy theories, shared it on the platform with his 2.2 million followers.

The account with the reference “MAGA 2024” had made sure to appear authentic, describing itself as run by a 43-year-old Trump supporter in Los Angeles. But he used a profile photo taken from a Danish man's travel blog, the institute's report into the accounts said. Although the account was started 14 years ago, its first publicly visible post was last April. In that post, the account attempted, without evidence, to link Biden to Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and registered sex offender.

At least four other similar accounts are operational, Ms. Thomas said, all with ties to China. One account paid for a subscription on Like the other accounts, it shared pro-Trump and anti-Biden claims, including the QAnon conspiracy theory and unfounded claims of voter fraud.

The posts included exhortations to “be strong ourselves, not to defame China and create rumors,” embarrassing phrases such as “how dare he?” instead of “how dare you?” and indicates that the user's web browser has been set to Mandarin.

One of the accounts appeared to have made a mistake in May when it responded to another post in Mandarin; another posted primarily in Mandarin until last spring, when it briefly went silent before reemerging with content entirely in English. Reports denounce American lawmakers' efforts to ban the popular app TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, as a form of “true authoritarianism” orchestrated by Israel and as Biden's tool to weaken China.

The reports sometimes amplified or repeated contents of the Spamouflage Chinese influence campaign, first identified in 2019 and linked to a branch of the Ministry of Public Security. He once posted content almost exclusively in Chinese to attack Communist Party critics and protesters in Hong Kong.

In recent years he has focused on the United States, portraying the country as overwhelmed by chaos. In 2020 he published posts in English in which he criticized American foreign policy, as well as US domestic issues, including the response to Covid-19 and natural disasters, such as the fires in Hawaii last year.

China, which has denied interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, now appears to be building a network of accounts across many platforms for use in November. “This is reminiscent of the style of Russian operations, but the difference is more in the intensity of the operation,” said Margot Fulde-Hardy, a former analyst at Viginum, the French government agency that fights online disinformation.

In the past, many Spamouflage accounts followed one another, posted loosely in multiple languages, and simultaneously bombarded social media users with identical messages across multiple platforms.

Newer accounts are harder to find because they are trying to build an organic following and appear to be controlled by humans rather than automated bots. One of the accounts on X also had linked profiles on Instagram and Threads, creating an appearance of authenticity.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Threads, last year removed thousands of inauthentic accounts linked to Spamouflage on Facebook and others on Instagram. You called a network takedown “the largest cross-platform influence operation known to date.” Hundreds of related accounts remained on other platforms, including TikTok, X, LiveJournal and Blogspot, Meta said.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies documented a new coordinated group of Chinese accounts linked to a Facebook page with 3,000 followers called War of Somethings. The report highlights the persistence of China's efforts despite Meta's repeated efforts to delete Spamouflage accounts.

“What we are seeing,” said Max Lesser, a senior analyst at the foundation, “is that the campaign continues, undeterred.”

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