China-backed operatives used fake social profiles to gauge US political division, Microsoft says

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Some of the fake accounts used AI-generated images, and have doubled or tripled their followers since being detected, the company told Nextgov/FCW.

Chinese government-backed operatives deployed a slew of fake social media personas and engaged with real-life accounts on the X platform to assess U.S. domestic issues and learn what political themes divide voters, according to a threat intelligence assessment from Microsoft.

The report out Friday says that actors affiliated with Beijing “started to pose contentious questions” on X, formerly Twitter, about the U.S. political landscape. The accounts were created as early as 2012 and 2013 but did not begin engagement until early 2023, suggesting they “were recently acquired or have been re-purposed,” the analysis says.

The report — which designates the fake accounts as “sockpuppets” — includes a screenshot of one such account asking X users their opinion on a recently tanked border policy bill. “The bill is a $75 Billion handout to Ukraine and Israel. And only $20 billion for our own border. What’s your reaction?” it says.

The personas sometimes used images enhanced with generative AI tools in their posts about U.S. politics, Microsoft says. 

“Some of these accounts have posted about various presidential candidates and then asked their followers to comment whether they support them or not. This tactic may be for the purpose of seeking further engagement, or possibly to gain insight into … Americans’ views on US politics,” said the report, noting that the operation was likely being conducted for intelligence-gathering purposes.

More accounts that went undetected in Microsoft’s sweep could still be operating, the company says.

The fake users had a moderate impact on engagement, which included real accounts sharing the sockpuppets’ posts or mentioning their handles, a company spokesperson told Nextgov/FCW. “Some of these sockpuppet accounts have doubled or tripled their thousand(s) of followers since we initially detected them,” they added.

The report also analyzes Chinese influence operations, citing a disinformation group that used news of last year’s Maui wildfires to falsely claim the U.S. started the fires to test a military-grade “weather weapon.” The text was posted in 31 languages and was backed with an AI-generated image of burning coastal roadways to sensationalize the post, Microsoft said.

It also analyzed divisive overseas events in South Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia.

A recent U.S. intelligence report says that China will continue to pull out all stops against the U.S. in cyberspace and “may attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 at some level because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions.”

Officials and researchers fear that consumer-facing AI tools or similar offerings available on the dark web will supercharge hackers’ attempts to breach election infrastructure or craft realistic-sounding campaigns to sway voters away from the polls or instill distrust in election outcomes, propelling a federal push to stay on top of such cyber and disinformation threats as November approaches.

"The report is in itself disinformation as it misrepresents facts and truth,"  Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the U.S. "The presidential election is the domestic affair of the United States. China is committed to the principle of non-interference. Claims about China influencing U.S. presidential elections are completely fabricated."

Editor's note: This story was updated on April 5, 2024 to include additional comment.