Security Experts:

How China Exploits Social Media to Influence American Public

The growth of Russia's attempts to manipulate American public opinion since 2015 is well known and documented. At heart, it is basic political propaganda -- which is an accepted tool of international diplomacy. Russia, however, is commonly perceived as having over-stepped the mark by actively seeking to sow discord, weaken western democracy, and influence elections.

It does this largely through social media. The global availability of the social media medium has led many to assume that other nations are doing similar -- and in particular, perhaps, America's other great political rival, China. Between October 2018 and February 22, 2019, Recorded Future's Insikt research group analyzed data from a number of western social media platforms to determine if and how the Chinese state seeks to influence American public opinion.

Its conclusion is that China does have a state social media political apparatus, but it is not used in the same way nor for the same ends as that of Russia. Russia seeks to disrupt the global status quo. It wishes to weaken western democracy, to weaken NATO, and to strain relations between the U.S. and the EU (and unity within each bloc). This goes beyond propaganda. It isn't intended to promote the Russian way of life and politics, but to weaken the west.

China's immediate political aspiration is not to destroy the west, but to equal the west. It wishes to stand as an equal global partner, both economically and technologically, with the United States. Achieving this does not require 'destroying' the west, but promoting China. Its social media program is thus, on the surface at least, more benign than that of Russia.

Nevertheless, it should be neither misunderstood nor underestimated. On a civilization clock, a Russian five-year plan would equate more to a Chinese 50-year plan. The key here is that China seems to have two completely different propaganda approaches -- one inside the Great Firewall aimed at controlling its own population, and one outside the Great Firewall aimed at influencing global public opinion in favor of China.

There are fundamental differences between the way in which Russia and China operate their global propaganda programs. Russia keeps its infamous Internet Research Agency (the Russian troll factory) at arms' length from the government. It is supposedly an independent company. This gives the Kremlin -- in theory at least -- plausible deniability over what the IRA does and how it operates.

In November 2017, a former IRA worker spoke to NBC, who reported, "Writers were separated by floor, with those on the third level blogging to undermine Ukraine and promote Russia. Writers on the first floor -- often former professional journalists like Bespalov -- created news articles that referred to blog posts written on the third floor. Workers on the third and fourth floor posted comments on the stories and other sites under fake identities, pretending they were from Ukraine. And the marketing team on the second floor weaved all of this misinformation into social media... Eventually, some of the IRA's social media accounts that started out supporting Russian actions in Ukraine later morphed into accounts that advocated for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015, according to U.S. intelligence." 

After 2015, the IRA's use of Facebook grew dramatically. In 2015 there were 360 IRA-linked Facebook posts. In 2016, it grew to 2,442 -- and in 2017 it stood at 4,234 (figures from an Oxford University paper titled, "The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018"). Insikt concludes that the jump in 2016 was ordered by President Putin, "to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."

The Russian approach to opinion-manipulation is further complicated by its willingness to engage in direct hacking campaigns to further its purpose. In July 2018, 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted by the U.S. for carrying out "large-scale cyber operations" to steal Democratic Party documents and emails.

China does not need to establish a separate entity to control social media campaigns. The government already exercises almost total control over the country's media, and simply tells it what to say. In 2016, President Xi reportedly told journalists that they were the "publicity front" of the government and the Party and that they must "promote the Party's will" and "protect the Party's authority".

Outside of the Great Firewall, this control over the media is clearly seen in the Xinhua news agency. Although it is described as China's national news agency, it is generally perceived as an extension of the Chinese intelligence services. It regularly provides cover for Chinese intelligence officers operating as 'journalists' around the world. The news stories promulgated by Xinhua follow the government line. It has built a huge on-line following which it uses in a manner similar to Russia's IRA to promote its agenda. Where it differs from the IRA is that the agenda is to promote China -- by sanitizing bad news, stressing good news, and adding an abundance of appealing photographs of beautiful China -- rather than weaken America. A similar line is followed by other Chinese news outlets with an online presence.

"The contrast in the scope and tone of China's goals in relation to Russia's strategic goals is a critical point," says Insikt. "China's message to the world is positive, and argues that China's rise will be beneficial, cooperative, and constructive for the global community. In comparison, Russia's strategic goals are more combative, revolutionary, and disruptive -- all traits that are characteristic of Russian social media influence operations since 2015."

However, Insikt also points out that China's outward cyber face is completely different to its inward face. Here everything is closed down and repressive. Internally, says Insikt, "since at least the late 1990s, the Chinese state pioneered internet censorship and social media influence operations." Now, continues Insikt, "The information-control regime in China has evolved to include a dizzying array of techniques, technologies, and resources." This is all to suppress dangerous western ideas of freedom and democracy, and to promote the party line.

The danger, then, is that if China's outward-looking social media manipulation succeeds and the country gains an equal footing with the U.S. politically, economically and technologically on the global stage, will it continue to maintain a benign propaganda stance against an ideologically enemy? Or will it then feel strong enough to remodel its propaganda methodology into something more akin to the current Russian model?

Related: The United States and China - A Different Kind of Cyberwar 

Related: State-Sponsored Hackers Supporting China's Naval Modernization Efforts 

Related: China's APT27 Hackers Use Array of Tools in Recent Attacks 

Related: China Police Get Power to Remotely 'Inspect' Company Networks in China 

Related: 'Five Eyes' Nations Blame China for APT10 Attacks 

view counter
Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.