When wildfires spread with devastating fury across Maui last month, China’s increasingly resourceful information warriors pounced.
In a flurry of false posts spread across the Internet, he said that the disaster was not natural, but the result of a secret “weather weapon” being tested by the United States. To strengthen plausibility, the posts contained photos that appeared to be generated by artificial intelligence programs, making them one of the first to use these new tools to enhance the aura of authenticity of a disinformation campaign .
For China – which largely stood on the sidelines of the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections while Russia conducted hacking operations and disinformation campaigns – the effort to stoke wildfires appears to be a deliberate act by US intelligence agencies and military tactics. There was a rapid change.
Until now, China’s influence campaigns have focused on increasing propaganda defending its policies on Taiwan and other topics. The most recent effort, revealed by researchers at Microsoft and several other organizations, shows that Beijing is making more direct efforts to sow discord in the United States.
The move comes as the Biden administration and Congress grapple with how to push back against China without plunging the two countries into open conflict, and how to mitigate the risk that AI could be used to amplify disinformation. is done.
The impact of the Chinese campaign – identified by researchers at Microsoft, Recorded Future, the RAND Corporation, NewsGuard and the University of Maryland – is difficult to measure, although early indications suggest that some social media users are engaging with the most bizarre conspiracy theories.
Microsoft vice president and president Brad Smith, whose researchers analyzed the covert operation, sharply criticized China for exploiting the natural disaster for political gain.
“I don’t think it’s worthy of any country, not worthy of any country that aspires to be a great country,” Mr. Smith said in an interview on Monday.
China was not the only country to make political use of the Maui fires. Russia did the same, spreading posts that emphasized how much money the United States was spending on the war in Ukraine and suggested the cash would be better spent at home on disaster relief.
Researchers suggested that China was creating a network of accounts that could be used in future information operations, including the next US presidential election. This is the pattern Russia established in about a year before the 2016 election.
“This is going in a new direction, which is giving rise to conspiracy theories that are not directly related to some of their interests, such as Taiwan,” said Brian Liston, a researcher at Recorded Future, a Massachusetts-based cybersecurity company.
US intelligence officials have assessed in recent months that if China engages in an influence campaign for next year’s election, it would be more likely to undermine President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump is likely to try to raise his profile. Although it may seem counterintuitive to Americans who remember Mr. Trump’s efforts to blame Beijing for what he called the “China virus,” intelligence officials have concluded that Chinese leaders like Mr. Trump. He has called for Americans to pull out of Japan, South Korea and other parts of Asia, while Mr Biden has cut off China’s access to the most advanced chips and the equipment meant to produce them.
The conspiracy theory about the fires by China comes after Mr Biden spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali last fall about Beijing’s role in spreading such misinformation. Mr Biden angrily criticized Mr Xi for spreading false allegations that the United States operates biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, according to administration officials.
According to researchers and administration officials, there is no sign that Russia and China are working together on information operations, but they often repeat each other’s messages, especially when it comes to criticism of US policies. Is. Their joint efforts suggest that a new phase of disinformation wars is about to begin, bolstered by the use of AI tools.
“We don’t have direct evidence of coordination between China and Russia in these campaigns, but we are certainly finding alignment and a kind of synchronization,” said William Marcellino, a researcher at RAND and one of the new authors. Report warns that artificial intelligence The global impact will enable “significant leaps forward” in operations.
Wildfire in Hawaii – like many natural disasters these days – gave rise to numerous rumors, false reports and conspiracy theories Almost from the beginning.
Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security, said a coordinated Russian campaign began on the social media platform Twitter, now known as Happened. ,
It spread the phrase, “Hawaii, not Ukraine”, from an obscure account with few followers through a series of conservative or right-wing accounts such as Breitbart and eventually Russian state media, with a message intended to reduce US military aid to thousands. users reached. For Ukraine.
China’s state media apparatus often echoes hostility towards Russian subjects, especially the United States. But in this case, it also launched a separate disinformation campaign.
Recorded Future first reported that the Chinese government was waging a covert campaign to blame “weather weapons” for the fires, identifying several posts in mid-August falsely claiming that the British Foreign Intelligence Service MI6 had revealed “the astonishing truth behind the wildfires”. , Posts containing the exact language appeared on social media sites across the Internet, including Pinterest, Tumblr, Medium and Pixiv, a Japanese site used by artists.
Other inauthentic accounts spread similar content, often with mislabeled videos, including a popular TikTok account, The Paranormal Chic, which depicted a transformer explosion in Chile. According to Recorded Future, Chinese content is often posted — and amplified — by conspiracy theorists and extremists, including white supremacists in the United States.
The Chinese campaign operated on several major social media platforms and in multiple languages, indicating that it was intended to reach a global audience. Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center identified inauthentic posts in 31 languages, including French, German and Italian, but also in less prominent languages such as Igbo, Odia and Guarani.
Artificially generated images of Hawaii wildfires identified by Microsoft researchers appeared on multiple platforms, including a Reddit post in Dutch. “It appears that these specific AI-generated images have been used specifically by the Chinese accounts used in this campaign,” Microsoft said in a report. “It doesn’t appear that they exist anywhere else online.”
Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, said China appears to have adopted Russia’s strategy for influence operations, laying the groundwork for influencing politics in the United States and other countries.
“This will be Russia in 2015,” he said, referring to bots and inauthentic accounts created by Russia ahead of its massive online influence campaign during the 2016 election. “If we look at how other actors have done it, they are building capacity. Now they are creating accounts that are secret.”
Natural disasters have often been the focus of disinformation campaigns, allowing bad actors to exploit emotion to allege shortcomings in preparedness or response. The goal may be to undermine confidence in specific policies, such as US support for Ukraine, or more generally to create internal discord. By suggesting that the United States is testing or using covert weapons against its own citizens, China’s effort also appears to aim to portray the country as a reckless, militaristic power.
“We’ve always been able to come together in the wake of humanitarian disasters and provide relief in the wake of earthquakes or hurricanes or fires,” said Mr. Smith, who is presenting some of Microsoft’s findings to Congress on Tuesday. “And to see this kind of discovery instead is, I think, very troubling and something that the global community should draw a red line around and remove borders.”