Concerns Growing that China's Influence Operations Getting Bolder

“This is some of the strongest evidence we have seen to date in public that the Chinese Party-state is engaged in influence operations on social media,” said Samantha Hoffman, a research fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center. “I suspect that the evidence will continue to grow in the coming months.”

Both Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China. Analysts pouring over the data released by both social media companies noted that some of the Twitter accounts had been active for years, some dating back to 2009, or earlier.

They note, though, that the accounts do not always appear to have done China’s bidding.

“A number of these accounts move through numerous tools and many languages, switching after long breaks,” Renee DiResta, a researcher with the Mozilla Information Trust Initiative, wrote on Twitter. “[It] Suggests at least some of the old/high-follower ones were purchased, or potentially rented.”

China has yet to comment directly on the allegations by Twitter and Facebook. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that the Chinese people and the media “have the right to express their point of view.”

“What is happening in Hong Kong, and what the truth is, people will naturally have their own judgment,” he added.

U.S. Reaction
There has also been little public reaction from U.S. officials, though many remain wary.

“This is another element of their efforts to manipulate data,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Monday, asked about China’s alleged activity on social media shortly after the news broke.

Others have tried to frame the influence campaign as another attempt by Beijing to distract the world’s attention.

“The Chinese government chooses to blame the United States rather than address its own governance failures in Hong Kong,” a senior administration official told VOA. “When a quarter of the population takes to the streets to voice their discontent, it’s not because they were tricked into doing it.”

Yet there is concern among intelligence officials and analysts that this use of social media shows that the Chinese Communist party, which already controls the information environment inside of China, is moving ambitiously to control the narrative fed to the outside world.

“This is a big deal because it’s the first time that we’ve had confirmation of anything like this from any Western social media platforms,” Matt Schrader, a China analyst at The Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, told VOA.

“You have to start asking, is China looking beyond Hong Kong? Is it looking beyond Taiwan? Is it practicing these tactics to be able to influence people globally?”

Jeff Seldin is VOA news reporter. Nike Ching contributed to this report, which includes information from Reuters. This article is published courtesy of the Voice of America (VOA)