Beijing’s social-media operations are larger and more effective than many realize.
SAN FRANCISCO—China’s offensive social-media operations are a sleeping giant, different from Russia’s in ways that Western social-media firms are unprepared to counter, a new report says.
The report, unveiled on Wednesday by cybersecurity research firm Recorded Future, compares Russian and Chinese disinformation operations.
Up to 18 percent of social media posts in China are government propaganda aimed at its own citizens. And there are a lot of people working that job. How many? First, recall that the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm that attempted to sway U.S. voters before and after the 2016 election, employed at most 600 people. Estimates of the size of the Chinese operation vary, according to research from different academic institutions cited by the Recorded Future report. One study put the estimate at above half a million people.
But this saturation attack on its own people isn’t necessarily how Beijing tries to influence the West. Priscilla Moriuchi, a researcher at Recorded Future, said the Chinese government’s near-total control over ita Internet space enables “techniques that are relatively unique to their own domestic information environment. They don’t use those techniques when targeting Americans in English on U.S. platforms. The goals they have for targeting Americans are different.”
At least right now, Beijing’s social-media influence operations aim is to paint China as a positive player on the world stage and advocate for Chinese interests in larger political discussions, such as trade. That sounds like the sort of thing a lot of countries do. But Moriuchi draws a distinction between the Chinese information activity and simple marketing. “Influence is distorted news and information…it’s strategically designed to change American opinions.”
She says “a classic example is how they profile Xinjiang Province in China,” where the government is cracking down on Muslims. “If you read Chinese content on social media, the Uighurs are happy, content.”
The Chinese government activity has gone largely undetected by Americans because it mostly aims to shape perceptions about China. But the researchers’ data shows that Chinese social media posts are very effective at achieving their aims. They report that just two Chinese profiles on Instagram achieved “a level of audience engagement roughly one-sixth as large as the entire Russian IRA-associated campaign targeting the United States” on the same platform.
So what if Beijing ordered its troll workforce to influence Americans, say, if U.S.-Chinese tensions rise? It is not hard to imagine that it could undermine U.S. policy or even the U.S. government.
Are Western social-media companies ready to fend off aggressive foreign influence efforts? The topic was much discussed at the RSA cybersecurity conference here this week. Moriuchi said she’d give them a readiness grade of D.
When asked about how the Department of Homeland Security was tracking non-Russian social media, Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, responded, “It’s an active space and will only get more active.”
Policy makers have responded with legislation, such as the Honest Ads Act from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. The act says that the same laws that govern the purchase of televised political ads should cover ads purchased on social media platforms as well. On Wednesday, Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security at Facebook, told the audience at RSA that the company supports the measure.
While Facebook, Twitter, and others have highlighted recent steps that they’ve taken to better address the problem of foreign misinformation, author and New America senior fellow Peter Singer described them as working through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. After persistently denying that there was any sort of problem, the companies have now entered the bargaining phase, trying to show how sincere they are about tackling the issue, he said.
Still it’s not clear what government agencies can do. The activity is different from China’s hacking activity that might elicit a law enforcement response. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center has the job of countering foreign influence, but they are a fraction of a size of even the Russian troll operation, much less the Chinese one, and they are limited in what they can do in the United States by law.
Also, neither Chinese nor Russian misinformation activity matches what Americans do to one another. A new report out Thursday from the NYU Stern School of Business and Human Rights found that Americans are the largest creators of misinformation on American social networks.
It’s an area where government agencies are particularly limited. Rob Joyce, the former Cyber Security Coordinator to the President, confessed that the problem was a big one, yet he couldn’t “imagine a [Gov] Department of Truth."