Chinese social media campaigns are successfully impersonating U.S. voters, Microsoft warns


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Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech in Beijing, China, April 24, 2023.
Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Chinese state-aligned influence and disinformation campaigns are impersonating U.S. voters and targeting political candidates on multiple social media platforms with improved sophistication, Microsoft said in a threat analysis report Thursday.

Chinese Communist Party-affiliated “covert influence operations have now begun to successfully engage with target audiences on social media to a greater extent than previously observed,” according to the report, which focused on the rise in “digital threats from East Asia.”

The Microsoft report also cautioned that some Chinese influence campaigns are now using generative artificial intelligence to create visual content that’s “already drawn higher levels of engagement from authentic” users, a trend the company said began around March.

Chinese influence campaigns have historically struggled to gain traction with intended targets, who in this case are U.S. voters and residents. But since the 2022 midterm elections, those efforts have become more effective, Microsoft warned.

Policymakers and industry experts have expressed concern about foreign influence campaigns on social media platforms, especially on X, formerly known as Twitter. In December, three Democratic House members asked X owner Elon Musk to provide information about manipulation campaigns on the platform.

Microsoft found content from Chinese influence campaigns on multiple apps, including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, and X. In August, Facebook parent Meta announced it had disrupted the largest ever identified disinformation campaign and linked it to China state-affiliated actors.

Microsoft’s report included screenshots of two different X posts in April that were identified as CCP-affiliated disinformation. Both were about the Black Lives Matter movement and had the same graphic. The first came from an automated CCP-affiliated account. The second, Microsoft said, was uploaded by an account impersonating a conservative U.S. voter seven hours later.

The operations identified by Microsoft shared hallmarks with one allegedly run by an elite group within China’s national security apparatus, the company said. That organization, the 912 Special Working Group, was identified by the Justice Department in April as perpetrating a harassment campaign targeting Chinese nationals across the U.S. The government charged 44 defendants, including 34 officers from China’s Ministry of Public Security.

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