Chinese Influence Campaign Pushes Disunity Before U.S. Election, Study Says


A Chinese influence campaign that has tried for years to boost Beijing’s interests is now using artificial intelligence and a network of social media accounts to amplify American discontent and division ahead of the U.S. presidential election, according to a new report.

The campaign, known as Spamouflage, hopes to breed disenchantment among voters by maligning the United States as rife with urban decay, homelessness, fentanyl abuse, gun violence and crumbling infrastructure, according to the report, which was published on Thursday by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research organization in London.

An added aim, the report said, is to convince international audiences that the United States is in a state of chaos.

Artificially generated images, some of them also edited with tools like Photoshop, have pushed the idea that the November vote will damage and potentially destroy the country.

One post on X that said “American partisan divisions” had an image showing President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump aggressively crossing fiery spears under this text: “INFIGHTING INTENSIFIES.” Other images featured the two men facing off, cracks in the White House or the Statue of Liberty, and terminology like “CIVIL WAR,” “INTERNAL STRIFE” and “THE COLLAPSE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY.”

The narratives did not appear to have any obviously partisan leanings, although Mr. Biden was the target of multiple negative portrayals, including references to his son Hunter Biden’s legal troubles and claims that the president is a drug user. Spamouflage’s attitude toward Mr. Trump was more ambiguous; posts claiming that his “status as an antihero is making him unstoppable” could be interpreted as flattering. Both men were depicted as being too old to govern.

In America’s “hyper-polarized division,” China sensed an opportunity, said Elise Thomas, a senior analyst at the institute who wrote the report. Spamouflage’s focus on social conflict and antagonism in the U.S. presidential race could also signal how Beijing hopes to shape the many other important elections taking place in the world this year.

“In this narrative universe, American democracy is painted as a source of discord and weakness,” Ms. Thomas said in a statement. “They are seeking to create a sense of a sclerotic superpower in disarray, incapable of resolving its internal problems and unfit to act as a leader on the international stage.”

Spamouflage has been active since at least 2017, Ms. Thomas wrote in the report, adding that the campaign is “infamous among researchers both for its sprawling size and for its failure to generate any noteworthy engagement from real social media users.” Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said last summer that it had removed thousands of social media accounts and hundreds of pages tied to the campaign. Researchers from Meta linked the campaign to Chinese law enforcement.

The report on Thursday focused on Spamouflage posts on X. Ms. Thomas wrote that while the campaign also operated on YouTube, TikTok, Medium and “literally dozens of other forums, websites and social media platforms,” it had proliferated with far more ease on X.

Researchers at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights cautioned in their report on digital risks to this year’s elections that the leading threat in the 2024 elections was less from A.I.-generated content and had more to do with the distribution of false, hateful and violent material. The report, which was published on Wednesday, said such content was more prevalent because numerous social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, had retreated from some of their past commitments related to election integrity.

The researchers singled out X, saying that ever since Elon Musk took over in late 2022, much of the platform’s elections team has been eliminated, toxic content has surged and other social media companies have used the volatility as an excuse to lower their own guard.

The researchers also noted that political polarization in the United States was likely to tempt China and others to try to sow confusion among voters.

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