Chinese trolls are taking a page from Russia’s 2016 playbook and trying to meddle in America’s midterm elections. But unlike their colleagues from St. Petersburg, these trolls aren’t trying very much and they’re failing — badly.
In a report released on Tuesday, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says it found networks of trolls based in China criticizing prominent Democrats and Republicans, all the while pretending to be liberals and conservatives on social media.
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Meta researchers found four clusters of China-based trolls targeting politics in the U.S., Czech Republic, and the French-speaking world. The networks focused on America were small. Taken together, the clusters pretending to be Democrats and Republicans made up only about a dozen accounts.
It’s unclear what the goal of the campaign was or who, specifically, in China was behind it. But on the surface, the campaign resembles Russian attempts to sow division across the political spectrum by trying to rile up both Democrats and Republicans against one another.
Trolls in the liberal-leaning cluster pretended to be residents of Florida, Texas, and California, and criticized the likes of Sens. Rick Scott and Ted Cruz and Gov. Ron DeSantis, while the Republican-leaning cluster targeted Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney and praised on DeSantis.
But unlike the Russian meddling campaigns of past years, the operation was a flop and “failed to gain following or engagement from authentic communities,” according to Meta researchers.
For content, the China-linked trolls either ripped off existing material on culture-war issues such as guns and abortion or fumbled their way through the U.S. vernacular with attempts to generate original content.
One troll post highlighted by Meta showed the network posting comments that praised DeSantis with a plagiarized tweet from anti-abortion activist Lila Rose. The trolls appear to have struggled with making passable American political discourse, though. In one mangled comment highlighted by Meta researchers, a troll account moaned that “I can’t live in an America on regression!” in a Facebook group.
Up until fairly recently, China’s government mostly shied away from running Russian-style social media trolling campaigns with sock puppets that aim to rile up American partisans and meddle in elections.
But disinformation researchers noticed a change in the wake of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as pro-Chinese-government troll networks surfaced to criticize and spread lies about the movement. After the Covid-19 pandemic, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well as cybersecurity companies like Mandiant began to see pro-Chinese trolling campaigns focused on U.S. politics and spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus.
During the 2020 election, Trump administration officials repeatedly tried to insinuate that China was trying to intervene in the presidential election, with the heavy implication that Beijing had a preference for Biden.
The intelligence community disagreed. Far from a rerun of 2016, with China as the meddler, an intelligence-community assessment concluded with “high confidence” that “China did not deploy interference efforts” and “did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling.”
While the Chinese trolls focused on domestic political issues, Meta researchers also found some evidence that the network tried to sway public opinion on foreign policy. Accounts in the fake conservatives cluster and in a separate cluster focused on the French-speaking world also tried to help Russian conspiracy theories about fake bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
The bogus conspiracy theory tried to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by alleging that Kyiv had hidden secret bioweapons labs to brew biological weapons for use against Russia. The talking point was originally floated by Russian diplomats and military officials but appears to have caught the attention of the China-based trolls in a sign of both tactical and narrative convergence.
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