How many hundreds of times have your heard about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election on Facebook? Those efforts turned out to be pretty paltry in the context of the tens of millions spent by the two major parties plus outside groups to flood the airwaves with ads. Nevertheless, congressional hearings were held on this topic.
Now there’s evidence that China was seeking to have an impact on the 2022 election using social media, specifically TikTok. But in this case the effort mostly seems aimed at helping Democrats and badmouthing Republicans.
TikTok accounts run by the propaganda arm of the Chinese government have accumulated millions of followers and tens of millions of views, many of them on videos editorializing about U.S. politics without clear disclosure that they were posted by a foreign government.
The accounts are managed by MediaLinks TV, a registered foreign agent and Washington D.C.-based outpost of the main Chinese Communist Party television news outlet, China Central Television. The largest of them are @Pandaorama, which features cute videos about Chinese culture, @The…Optimist, which posts about sustainability, and @NewsTokss, which features coverage of U.S. national and international news.
In the run-up to the 2022 elections, the @NewsTokss account criticized some candidates (mostly Republicans), and favored others (mostly Democrats)…
Chinese state media entities have long sought to use social media to influence U.S. audiences — they’ve built audiences and bought ads on Facebook and Twitter to disseminate misinformation about topics such as the detainment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But this is the first report of a Chinese state media entity using TikTok to influence U.S. audiences’ opinions about U.S. politics.
Forbes didn’t provide links to most of the videos they mentioned but they weren’t hard to find:
The White House publicly condemned comments former President Donald Turmp made about American Jews on Sunday. The former president asserted that ‘evangelicals’ were far more appreciative of his policies toward Israel than Jewish people living in the U.S. and added ‘he had done more for Israel’ than any other American president. What do you think about this? Comment below. #news #newstoks #jewish #israel #trump #biden #whitehouse #usa #usjews
U.S. President Joe Biden called Republicans ‘hypocrites’ on Monday for criticizing his plan for student loan relief, saying that many lawmakers received help in the form of PPP loans during the pandemic. Agree or disagree? Comment below. #news #newstoks #newstok #biden #trump #republicans #mitchmcconnell #inflation #studentloans #debtrelief
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said that #Republicans are actively voting against the rights of the American people, citing their lack of support for such bills as the Inflation Act and Biden’s student debt relief. Do you think this is true? Comment below. #news #newstoks #elizabethwarren #trump #biden #inflation #studentdebt
Even focusing on the Democrats’ abortion strategy:
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre stressed U.S. President Joe Biden’s commitment to women’s health and to codify Roe v Wade into law after it was overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year. #news #prochoice #womenshealth #prolife #biden #trump #newstoks
None of these videos has a huge number of views, but there does seem to be a pattern, including a focus on praising Democratic Senate candidates in swing states and trashing Republicans:
Senator Marco Rubio has been criticized for raising questions about a recent prisoner exchange with Venezuela. Seven Americans detained in Venezuela were released in exchange for the release of two Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States for drug smuggling conspiracy. Alexandra Forseth, whose father and uncle were among those freed, claims Marco Rubio has done nothing for the families and was ‘unpatriotic.’ #florida #marcorubio #miami #republicans #hurricaneian #gop
On the first day of early voting in Georgia’s tight race, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock cast his ballot and stepped up his criticism of Republican rival and former football player Herschel Walker. Warnock cited several claims of domestic abuse in support of his claim that his opponent has a “disturbing habit of violence.” #news #newstoks #herschelwalker #heschel #warnock #georgia #midterms #trump
All of the clips above are from October. It’s all pretty routine pre-election stuff. the issue here is simply that it’s being put out by Chinese state media. I didn’t see any clips about Fetterman except this one which went up on 10-28:
The night following a U.S. Senate campaign debate against Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman attempted to undertake damage control. Following the debate, Fetterman said that $2 million had come into his campaign as Democrats tried to assess the effects of Fetterman’s recent stroke in May, may have done to their chances of winning a crucial U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. #news #newstoks #droz #mehmetoz #trump #biden #pennsylvania #fetterman
Like I said, none of these clips had more than a couple thousand views so I’m not convinced this changed the outcome of any races, but there is arguably an intent to do so. Will Democrats still be in a panic about foreign influence?
This isn’t the first indication that China is trying to meddle in US politics. Wired published a big report about it in October:
On Wednesday, cybersecurity and threat intelligence firm Mandiant published new findings about a group it calls Dragonbridge, which it’s seen for years promoting pro-Chinese interests in fake grassroots social media campaigns designed to influence politics in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Now, Mandiant’s analysts have tied Dragonbridge to a series of more US-focused influence campaigns. The group claimed that a notorious hacking spree carried out by known Chinese state-sponsored hackers was actually carried out by US intelligence, falsely blamed the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline on the US government, and—perhaps most brazenly—seeded hundreds of posts on social media designed to demoralize voters and reduce turnout ahead of the November midterms.
“This actor has been rapidly growing and hyper-aggressive. They went from carrying out limited campaigns focused on Hong Kong to a global operation on dozens of platforms,” says John Hultquist, Mandiant’s VP of intelligence analysis. “Interfering in our elections is just another line that they’re clearly willing to cross.”
Mandiant declined to reveal in its report or to WIRED the full collection of disinformation posts that it’s tied to Dragonbridge, but the company says the posts numbered in the thousands.
I can’t show you any of the content in question because it has all be deleted. Those efforts weren’t as bluntly political as the TikTok videos but they did touch on hot button issues (like the sabotage of Nord Stream) that would be considered part of US foreign policy.
My guess is we won’t hear nearly as much about this state sponsored effort to influence US politics this time around, probably because it seemed aimed at benefiting Democrats.