A sophisticated social media operation believed to be linked to China's communist regime played a key role in spreading disinformation, sowing discord, and amplifying calls for violence during and following the U.S. election in November, a report from Cardiff University has found.
The researchers found that the network spread anti-U.S. propaganda, sought to portray anti-communist sentiment in Hong Kong in a negative light, and amplified calls for violence before and after the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. While some of the Twitter messages the network pushed echoed the "themes used by the right-wing US ‘patriot’ communities in their messaging," the "vast majority of the tweets referencing President [Donald] Trump were negative in sentiment," the report found.
The CSRI team uncovered more than 400 accounts engaging in related suspicious activities, with the accounts shut by Twitter after they were flagged by the researchers and forwarded to the social media company.
Strong evidence of connection to China includes the use of the Chinese language, and when English was used, there was evidence that it was derived from machine translation tools, CSRI said. Other factors that point to links to China are a focus on topics of interest to Chinese geopolitical interests, account activity only during Chinese office hours, and limited activity during a Chinese national holiday.
"The behaviour of the accounts was sophisticated and disciplined, and seemingly designed to avoid detection by Twitter’s counter-measures," Innes said, adding that the network seems to have been run as a series of nearly autonomous cells, with minimal links between them designed to protect the network as a whole.
Innes said that the evidence his team collected about the group's activity "marks the network as a significant attempt to influence the trajectory of US politics by foreign actors."
One key theme relating to the Capitol incident pushed by the China-linked actors was presenting the United States as a "chaotic nation on the verge of political collapse and major disorder," the report found. Sometimes, this was in combination with anti-Trump sentiment, with the report citing as an example the message: "Trump’s final madness cannot stop his doomsday."
Another major motif pushed by the China-linked actors was "the denigration of Hong Kong," which included a portrayal of Hong Kong as marred by riot-related instability, "ungrateful for China's efforts," and as struggling to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak, the report found. There was also a portrayal of UK and U.S. diplomatic efforts with regard to the crisis in Hong Kong as "interference."
While CSRI said that it can't be certain that the network was backed by the Chinese regime, the report noted that the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that it was, and, "on the balance of probabilities, it is unlikely that the network operates without some official awareness and/or guidance. This is significant given the levels of influence and interference in US politics that the accounts have engaged in."