RSA CONFERENCE 2019 – San Francisco – Russia and China both leverage social media influence operations to sway opinions in the United States and other Western nations. Each has a unique reason for doing so, and they use markedly different techniques to achieve their goals.
This is the premise behind “Beyond Hybrid War: How China Exploits Social Media to Sway American Opinion,” a Recorded Future report that investigates Chinese influence campaigns and compares them with Russia’s. Researchers analyzed data from Western social platforms from October 2018 through February 2019 to determine how and why China exploits social media.
Researchers and academics across the US have been exploring Russian disinformation tactics since the 2016 US presidential election. There’s an assumption that other state-run influence campaigns must operate in a similar manner; however, this report shows that isn’t the case.
Analysts set out to learn whether China employs the same influence tactics in the English language social media space as it does domestically, and how Chinese state-run influence operations are similar or different from Russian ones, explained Priscilla Moriuchi, head of nation-state research at Recorded Future, in a presentation at this year’s RSA Conference. They found variances in foreign policy and strategic goals contribute to different methodologies.
“President Xi Jinping has different global strategic goals for China than President Vladimir Putin has for Russia; as a result, the social media influence techniques utilized by China are different than those utilized by Russia,” Recorded Future researchers explain in their report.
Russian Strategies: Disruptive, Destructive
“These strategic goals are disruptive,” said Moriuchi in her talk. Russia’s strategic goals are a polycentric international system, to challenge the unity of NATO, manipulate the US electoral system, and divide the US and European Union.
Its goals drive its methodologies: a nominally “private” firm — the Internet Research Agency (IRA), for example, in the 2016 election — is hired to run social media operations. In 2015–2016, IRA employees reported writers were hired to create and spread fake news on social media.
“We saw this type of content move from dissemination of fake news … to hyperpartisan content,” said Moriuchi. Russian social media operations also heavily used memes. They were intended to destabilize, erode trust, promote chaos, and sow discontent across the US.
Researchers pinpointed several trends in election disruption reinforced across social media platforms: a clear preference for one candidate, targeting of specific opponents, real-world impact (voter suppression), and secessionist/insurrectionist messages. Their goals are disruptive and destructive; as a result, their social media operations use similar tactics.
China’s Domestic Model: Control
The Chinese state heavily influences how people within its borders use the Internet. Moriuchi referenced the Golden Shield Project, a nationwide surveillance network, as well as the so-called Great Firewall of China, which aimed to censor content and influence the population.
China uses several technical measures to govern its Internet: URL filtering, man-in-the-middle attacks, mobile app bans, distributed denial-of-service attacks, search engine filtering. “The goal of control is to influence the way their public thinks and acts,” Moriuchi said. “That is the root of influence.”
Today, China employs three primary tactics to control people online, she continued. The first is outright censorship: People are blocked from posting comments or posts on certain topics, and recipients of banned messages don’t receive them. Next up is social media regulation: Platforms including Twitter and Facebook are blocked, and other social media is required to comply with state censorship organizations. Finally, it distributes fake comments.
“[It’s] hogging the seats on the Internet sofa,” Moriuchi explained. The government pays social media commentators to spread fake grassroots comments on news websites and social media to influence public opinion with positive, pro-regime sentiments.
China’s Foreign Tactics: A Model Country
In contrast to Russia’s model, which is built on disruption, China’s strategic goals are geared toward more influence on the international system. It wants to demonstrate how it’s committed to building a globally equal, peaceful world, and its foreign campaigns reflect it. There is little overlap between its domestic and foreign influence techniques, said Moriuchi.
“It’s a very, very positive image,” she explained. China wants to portray the “Chinese dream,” and use its messaging to propagate its role as a positive contributor to society. Russia’s aim is to be divisive; China’s is to influence American’s perception of Chinese policies. There was no large-scale attempt by China to interfere with the US presidential election, though it did disseminate news saying President Trump’s policies were “unstable” and “volatile and erratic.”
State-run media plants the seeds for a coordinated campaign, she added, and it’s common for papers to present the same story and photos. Paid advertisements reflect its goals: China promotes its natural beauty, cultural heritage, overseas leaders’ visits to China, Chinese leaders’ visits abroad, the positive impact China is having in science and tech, and breaking global news.
“China uses the openness of American society to propagate a distorted and dystopian view of its own government,” said Moriuchi.
It’s worth noting China’s social media influence has a tremendous reach: Moriuchi compared two Chinese state-run Instagram accounts with the entire known IRA campaign targeting the US. Whereas the full IRA initiative had 32.5 million engagements, two Chinese accounts had 5.4 million.
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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial … View Full Bio