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China’s Expansive Influence Operations Beyond TikTok

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China’s influence operations are not a novelty. Historically, such efforts were more overt and limited to traditional espionage. However, in the digital age, these operations have evolved into sophisticated social media campaigns that aim to sow discord, manipulate public discourse, and undermine democratic institutions not just in the U.S., but globally.

A significant aspect of these operations involves creating fake profiles and content on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and X (formerly known as Twitter). These accounts often masquerade as local citizens or groups, weaving divisive narratives that resonate with existing societal fractures. For instance, during recent U.S. election cycles, these operations have been observed posting content that both sides of the political spectrum find inflammatory, thus deepening partisan divides.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has flagged these tactics as part of the largest covert influence operations it has faced, linked directly to Chinese law enforcement agencies like the so-called Spamouflage network. Despite their large scale, these campaigns often struggle to gain traction due to their lackluster content and transparent tactics. However, there’s an ongoing risk that with refinements, these operations could become more effective.

China employs a variety of sophisticated methods in its influence operations, primarily aimed at manipulating public opinion and political outcomes across the globe. One of the most pervasive techniques involves the creation of fake social media accounts that impersonate real individuals or organizations. These accounts are used to disseminate propaganda, spread disinformation, and amplify divisive content. By crafting narratives that resonate with existing societal tensions, these operations aim to sow discord and undermine trust in democratic institutions. This method has been observed on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and X, where accounts strategically post inflammatory remarks or distorted information on sensitive topics such as immigration, political policies, and social justice issues.

Another method in China’s arsenal is the use of advanced artificial intelligence technologies to produce and disseminate content. AI is employed to create realistic, yet entirely fabricated, images, videos, and audio clips. These can include deepfakes—videos or audio recordings that look and sound like real people saying or doing things they never actually did. AI-generated content is particularly effective because it can be tailored to mimic real-life scenarios, making the disinformation more convincing. For instance, AI was used to simulate endorsements in Taiwan’s elections, where AI-generated audio falsely depicted public figures supporting certain candidates. This technique not only misleads the public but also can alter perceptions and influence voter behavior without their knowledge.

In addition to digital tactics, China also engages in more traditional forms of espionage and cyber operations to support its influence efforts. These operations target critical infrastructure, government networks, and private corporations to steal sensitive information, which can then be used to exert political or economic pressure. Cyberattacks and hacking are deployed to infiltrate the networks of adversaries, gathering intelligence that could be used to craft more effective disinformation campaigns. By combining high-tech AI-driven methods with more conventional spying techniques, China’s influence operations maintain a dynamic approach to manipulating global narratives and advancing its geopolitical interests.

This growing reliance on AI signifies a potential shift in the effectiveness of these influence campaigns. As AI technology continues to evolve, the authenticity and impact of generated content could become more convincing, making it a significant tool for misinformation campaigns.

The international response to these threats involves both policy-making and technological innovation. Nations like the U.S. have begun to take legislative action, as seen with the TikTok ban, but there is also a push to improve the technological capabilities of domestic platforms to detect and counteract misinformation.

But China’s propaganda operations are mature, pervasive and almost impossible to stop. This is a major operation by the country with the second largest economy in the world.

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