When wildfires ravaged Maui last month with destructive fury, China’s increasingly resourceful information warriors swooped in.
The disaster was not natural, they said in a series of fake messages spread on the Internet, but was the result of a secret “weather weapon” tested by the United States. To enhance plausibility, the messages featured photographs that appeared to have been generated by artificial intelligence programs, making it one of the first to use these new tools to enhance the aura of authenticity of a campaign. disinformation.
For China – which largely remained on the sidelines of the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections while Russia carried out hacking operations and disinformation campaigns – the attempt to present the wildfires as a deliberate act by intelligence agencies and the American army constituted a rapid change of tactics.
China’s influence campaigns so far have focused on amplifying propaganda defending its policies toward Taiwan and other issues. The most recent effort, revealed by researchers at Microsoft and various other organizations, suggests that Beijing is more directly trying to sow discord in the United States.
The move also comes as the Biden administration and Congress grapple with how to respond to China without tipping the two countries into open conflict, and how to reduce the risk that AI will be used to amplify disinformation.
The impact of the Chinese campaign – identified by researchers at Microsoft, Recorded Future, RAND Corporation, NewsGuard and the University of Maryland – is difficult to measure, although early indications suggest that few social media users have engaged. engaged in the wildest of conspiracy theories. .
Brad Smith, vice president and president of Microsoft, whose covert campaign researchers analyzed, sharply criticized China for exploiting a natural disaster for political purposes.
“I just don’t think it’s worthy of a country, let alone a country that aspires to be a great country,” Mr. Smith said in an interview Monday.
China was not the only country to use the Maui fires politically. Russia did the same, broadcasting messages highlighting how much money the United States was spending on the war in Ukraine and suggesting that money would be better spent at home on disaster relief.
Researchers suggest that China is building a network of accounts that could be used in future information operations, including during the upcoming US presidential election. This is the model Russia adopted in the year leading up to the 2016 elections.
“This is going in a new direction, which is sort of amplifying conspiracy theories that are not directly related to some of their interests, like in Taiwan,” said Brian Liston, a researcher at Recorded Future, a cybersecurity company based in Massachusetts.
If China engages in influence operations for next year’s elections, U.S. intelligence officials have assessed in recent months, it will likely try to diminish President Biden and raise the former president’s profile Donald J. Trump. While this may seem counterintuitive to Americans who remember Mr. Trump’s efforts to blame Beijing for what he called the “China virus,” intelligence officials have concluded that Chinese leaders prefer Mr. Trump. He called for American withdrawal from Japan, South Korea and other parts of Asia, while Mr. Biden cut off China’s access to the most advanced chips and the equipment designed to produce them.
China’s promotion of a conspiracy theory about the fires comes after Mr. Biden spoke in Bali last fall to Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, about Beijing’s role in spreading a such misinformation. According to administration officials, Mr. Biden angrily criticized Mr. Xi for spreading false accusations that the United States operated biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.
According to researchers and administration officials, there is no evidence that Russia and China are working together on information operations, but they often echo each other’s messages, particularly when it comes to to criticize American policy. Their combined efforts suggest that a new phase of disinformation wars is about to begin, empowered by the use of AI tools.
“We don’t have direct evidence of coordination between China and Russia in these campaigns, but we certainly see alignment and some sort of synchronization,” said William Marcellino, a researcher at RAND and author of a new report warning of artificial effects. intelligence will enable a “critical leap forward” in global influence operations.
The Hawaii wildfires – like many natural disasters these days – gave rise to numerous rumors, false reports and conspiracy theories almost from the start.
Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Applied Intelligence and Security Research Lab, reported that a coordinated Russian campaign began on Twitter, the social media platform now known as X, on August 9, a day after the fires started. .
He spread the phrase “Hawaii, not Ukraine,” from an obscure account with few followers, through a series of conservative or right-wing accounts like Breitbart and, ultimately, Russian state media, reaching thousands of users with a message intended to undermine US military aid. in Ukraine.
China’s state media apparatus often echoes Russian themes, particularly animosity toward the United States. But in this case, he also carried out a separate disinformation campaign.
Recorded Future first reported that the Chinese government had launched a covert campaign to blame a “weather weapon” for the fires, identifying numerous messages in mid-August falsely claiming that MI6, the intelligence service British foreigner, had revealed “the astonishing truth behind the forest fires”. .” Posts in the exact language appeared on social media sites across the Internet, including Pinterest, Tumblr, Medium and Pixiv, a Japanese site used by artists.
Other inauthentic accounts spread similar content, often accompanied by mislabeled videos, including one from a popular TikTok account, The Paranormal Chic, which shows a transformer explosion in Chile. According to Recorded Future, Chinese content often echoed – and amplified – the messages of conspiracy theorists and extremists in the United States, including white supremacists.
The Chinese campaign ran across several major social media platforms – and in many languages, suggesting it aimed to reach a global audience. Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center identified inauthentic posts in 31 languages, including French, German and Italian, but also in lesser-known languages like Igbo, Odia and Guarani.
The artificially generated images of the Hawaii wildfires identified by Microsoft researchers appeared on multiple platforms, including a Dutch-language Reddit post. “These specific AI-generated images appear to be used exclusively” by the Chinese accounts used in this campaign, Microsoft said in a report. “They don’t seem to be present anywhere else online.”
Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, said China appears to have adopted the Russian model of influence operations, laying the groundwork for political influence in the United States and elsewhere. other countries.
“This would be the Russia of 2015,” he said, referring to bots and inauthentic accounts created by Russia before its massive online influence operation during the 2016 election. “If we look at how to other actors have done this, they are strengthening their capacities. Now they are creating secret accounts.
Natural disasters have often been the subject of disinformation campaigns, allowing bad actors to exploit emotions to accuse governments of shortcomings, whether in their preparation or response. The goal may be to undermine confidence in specific policies, such as U.S. support for Ukraine, or more generally to sow internal discord. By suggesting that the United States was testing or using secret weapons against its own citizens, China’s efforts also seemed intended to portray the country as a militaristic and reckless power.
“We have always been able to come together in the wake of humanitarian disasters and provide relief in the wake of earthquakes, hurricanes or fires,” said Smith, who presents some of the findings on Tuesday. Microsoft in Congress. “And to see this kind of prosecution instead is both, I think, deeply worrying and something that the global community should draw a red line around and prohibit. »