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Economy

China’s Increasing Efforts to Influence US Elections Raise Alarms

According to researchers and government officials, covert Chinese accounts are posing 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.

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

In an echo of Russia’s influence campaign ahead of the 2016 election, China appears to be trying to take advantage of partisan divisions to undermine the Biden administration’s policies, despite recent efforts by the two countries to lower the temperature in their relationships.

Some of the Chinese accounts pose as ardent Trump fans, including one on The stories mocked Biden’s age and shared fake images of him in a prison jumpsuit, or claimed 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 discovered a small group of fake accounts posing as Trump supporters.

Ms. Thomas and other researchers have linked the new activity to a long-standing network of accounts connected to the Chinese government known as Spamouflage. Several of the accounts they detailed previously posted pro-Beijing content in Mandarin, only to resurface in recent months under the guise of actual Americans writing in English.

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

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

China’s activity has already raised alarm bells within the US government.

In February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that China was expanding its influence campaigns to “cast doubt on American leadership, undermine democracy, and expand Beijing’s influence.” The report expressed concern that Beijing could use increasingly sophisticated methods to try to influence the US election “to sideline China’s critics.”

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a statement that the presidential election was “an internal matter of the United States” and that “China is committed to the principle of non-interference.”

“Claims that China influences the US presidential election are completely fabricated,” he added.

Thomas, who has studied China’s information operations for years, said the new effort suggested a more subtle and sophisticated approach than previous campaigns. It was the first time, he said, that he had encountered Chinese accounts that so persuasively posed as Trump-supporting Americans and at the same time managed to attract genuine engagement.

“The concern has always been: What if one day they wake up and are effective?” she said. “Potentially, this could be the start of them waking up and being effective.”

Online misinformation experts look ahead to the months leading up to the November election with growing anxiety.

Intelligence assessments show Russia is using increasingly subtle influence tactics on the United States to spread its arguments for isolationism as it continues its war against Ukraine. Mock news sites target Americans with Russian propaganda.

Efforts to combat false narratives and conspiracy theories, already a difficult task, must now also contend with waning moderation efforts on social media platforms, political pushback, the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence technology and widespread information fatigue.

So far, China’s efforts to promote 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 denigrating democracy and stoking anti-American sentiment.

In the 2022 midterm elections, cybersecurity firm Mandiant reported that Dragonbridge, a China-linked influence campaign, attempted to dissuade Americans from voting while highlighting American political polarization. That campaign, which experimented with fake American personas posting first-person content, was poorly executed and largely 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 X account calling itself a Western name along with a reference to “MAGA 2024” shared a video from RT, the Kremlin-controlled Russian television network, to claim 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 research 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 “MAGA 2024” account had taken steps to appear authentic, describing itself as being 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, according to the institute’s report on the accounts. Although the account was opened 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 also operating, 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 accusations of election fraud.

The posts included exhortations to “be strong ourselves, not slander China and create rumors,” uncomfortable phrases such as “how dare we?” instead of “how dare you?” and signals that the user’s web browser had been set to Mandarin.

One of the accounts appeared to make a mistake in May when it responded to another post in Mandarin; another published primarily in Mandarin until last spring, when it briefly went silent before resurfacing with content exclusively in English. The accounts denounced efforts by US lawmakers to ban the popular TikTok app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, as a form of “true authoritarianism” orchestrated by Israel and as a tool for Biden to undermine China.

The accounts sometimes amplified or repeated content from the Chinese influence campaign Spamouflage, which was 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 it has pivoted to focus on the United States, portraying the country as overwhelmed by chaos. In 2020, she was publishing in English and criticizing American foreign policy as well as domestic issues in the United States, including its response to Covid-19 and natural disasters, such as the wildfires in Hawaii last year.

China, which has denied interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, now appears to be building a network of accounts on many platforms to go live in November. “This is reminiscent of Russia’s style of operations, but the difference is more the intensity of this operation,” said Margot Fulde-Hardy, a former analyst at Viginum, France’s government agency that combats online disinformation.

In the past, many Spamouflage accounts followed one another, posting carelessly in multiple languages ​​and simultaneously bombarding social media users with identical messages on multiple platforms.

Newer accounts are harder to find because they try to build organic followers and appear to be controlled by humans rather than automated bots. One of X’s accounts 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. She called a network she had taken down “the largest multi-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 The Something War. The report underscores the persistence of China’s efforts despite Meta’s repeated efforts to remove Spamouflage accounts.

“What we’re seeing,” said Max Lesser, a senior analyst at the foundation, “is that the campaign just continues, unfazed.”