Trump is playing up China’s threat to the 2020 election. But the evidence shows Russia is the real danger

CNN  — 

For months, the Trump administration has been warning of the dangers of political interference by China in the US election.

In April, President Trump said Beijing wanted him out of the White House. Attorney General William Barr and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Beijing was a bigger threat than Russia. And Bill Evanina, Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, listed the ways that China had been “expanding its influence efforts.”

Yet, this week, China didn’t feature in the latest warning about election interference.

On Thursday, US national security officials accused Russian state-sponsored hackers of targeting state and local governments and of successfully stealing data in at least two instances. The allegations came shortly after officials accused Russia and Iran of using US voter registration information to undermine Trump’s campaign.

By contrast, very little evidence of China’s alleged meddling has emerged, weeks before the vote. The China-backed foreign misinformation efforts that have been made public had a minuscule reach compared Russia’s efforts before the 2016 US presidential vote.

“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.”

US President Donald Trump said during the the final presidential debate on October 22, 2020, that nobody had been tougher than him on Russia.

Russia’s playbook

Russia’s use of disinformation dates back far before the last presidential election. The Soviet Union used the art of “dezinformatsiya” to forge documents, plant fake stories in the media to benefit Russian interests, and infiltrate activist groups during the Cold War. Those strategies came from the Tsarist era, when the secret police would fake materials to discredit enemies.

The difference now, of course, is that those tactics have moved online.

In 2014, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a secretive technology company with close ties to the Kremlin, began using fake social media accounts and group pages to target US audiences around divisive issues in the lead up to the 2016 election, according to the Mueller report.

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.

Some IRA employees, posing as Americans, communicated with the Trump campaign to try to coordinate political activities, including political rallies. More than 1,000 employees reportedly worked from an office block in St. Petersburg to run the influence campaign – with the goal of getting Trump elected to benefit Russian interests.

Those tactics are still being used, but better disguised, now that the playbook has been publicized. A CNN investigation earlier this year found a network of social media accounts targeting the US that came from people in Ghana and Nigeria, working on behalf of Russia. This September, Facebook and Twitter announced the IRA created a fake progressive website called Peace Data that engaged with real Americans and even hired some Americans to write articles, which were then shared on different social media platforms.

08:58 - Source: CNN
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Using domestic tactics overseas

For a long time, China’s online influence operations focused inward, using censorship and propaganda to control what information its citizens can see at home. A 2017 Harvard study estimated that the Chinese government produces 488 million fake social media posts a year to cheerlead the authorities and distract public attention from discussions critical of the regime. The study concluded that the Chinese government uses an enormous workforce of mostly government employees, contributing part time, to fabricate the posts.

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.”

Fake accounts creators often have to steal profile photos of a real people. To get around that problem, the operation used artificial intelligence to generate images of fake faces.

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.

In August 2019, Facebook and Twitter removed accounts from China that sowed political discord and amplified messages to undermine the legitimacy of the protest movement, portraying demonstrators as violent, extreme and dangerous.