With Election Day less than a month away, voters are being bombarded with mailers and television ads by candidates hoping to collect their vote. But in the 2016 presidential election, the internet and social media emerged as a new battleground to influence voters.
In that forum, it isn’t just politicians or even ardent local supporters stumping on behalf of candidates or ideas. Foreign countries with ulterior motives have injected themselves into online spaces to sow discord and attempt to influence the outcomes of the United States’ democratic elections.
Following the 2016 election, the focus was on Russian attempts to influence the outcome. But heading into the 2018 midterms, China—not Russia—appears to be the biggest threat of foreign influence.
“China absolutely is exerting unprecedented effort to influence American opinion,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said at a Senate hearing on national security on Oct. 10, in response to a question about election integrity.
“They are bringing everything they have to bear. They are playing a long game. They are trying to influence us in every way possible.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, whose agency is responsible for addressing outside influence to American elections, highlighted the threat from China.
“I think China represents the broadest, most complicated, most long-term intelligence threat we face,” Wray told a Senate committee on Oct. 10. “It affects every sector of our economy, every state in the country, and just about every aspect of what we hold dear.”
Both comments echo the claim President Donald Trump made last month at the U.N. Security Council when he shocked many by calling out China for attempting to meddle in the midterm elections.
‘They [China] do not want me or us to win, because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” Trump told the Security Council.
Last month, Trump imposed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, and China responded with tariffs on $60 billion in American imports. But China is fighting back with more than just tariffs.
On Sept. 23, China Daily, an English-language state-run newspaper, ran a four-page advertorial in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register. In a clear effort to influence Iowa voters, an article claimed the trade war was forcing Chinese importers to buy soybeans from South America.
“I don’t like it when they attack our farmers, and I don’t like it when they put out false messages,” Trump told reporters on Sept. 26 at the U.N. “But, besides that, we learned that they are trying to meddle in our elections. And we’re not going to let that happen, just as we’re not going to let that happen with Russia.”
Trump has vowed to fight any Russian interference, but he may not need to wield as heavy a hammer as he does with China. In the post-election review of Russian meddling, Facebook found over the nearly two-year period from June 2015 to May 2017, only $100,000 was spent on approximately 3,000 ads that “likely originated out of Russia.”
Wray pointed out at the Senate hearing why China is actually the bigger threat.
“Russia is, in many ways, fighting to stay relevant after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Wray said. “They are fighting today’s fight. China is fighting tomorrow’s fight.”
China may be fighting tomorrow’s fight, but the Trump administration is fighting back today. On Oct. 4, Vice President Mike Pence gave a blistering speech at The Hudson Institute calling out China for attempting to exert influence in the United States.
“There can be no doubt: China is meddling in America’s democracy,” Pence said. “To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working; and China wants a different American president.”
Pence noted the intelligence community found China is using wedge issues, such as trade and tariffs, to divide officials at the federal and local level. He said Beijing is trying to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy by mobilizing covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets. They are even threatening to deny a business license to a major American corporation unless that company speaks out against Trump policy.
According to Pence, an estimated 80 percent of the U.S. counties targeted by China voted for Trump in 2016. That could have an effect not only on next month’s midterms, and also in the 2020 presidential election.
But our voting machines and election infrastructure appear to be safe from China—for now.
“We have not seen, to date, any Chinese attempts to compromise election infrastructure,” Nielsen said.
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