Written by Adam Goldman, Sheera Frenkel and Julian E. Barnes
Facebook has detected limited Chinese operations intended to both help and hurt President Donald Trump’s reelection chances, the company announced Tuesday, the first public disclosure of Chinese efforts to influence the presidential election in November.
The Chinese activity, while modest and not directly attributed to the government in Beijing, could undercut Trump’s repeated contention that China is intervening in the election to support former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. While the intelligence community has assessed that China opposes Trump’s reelection, officials said this week that the actions on Facebook so far were small and Beijing had not yet decided to mount a large-scale influence operation comparable to Russian efforts in 2016 and this year.
Facebook identified a range of fake accounts pushing information about American and Philippine politics and Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Though much of the activity outlined by China was centered on the Philippines, some was more directly relevant to American politics.
Facebook said it was removing the accounts for violating its policy against “inauthentic behavior.” The activity was coordinated and originated in China, though Chinese officials, including the ambassador to the United States, have denied allegations they are seeking to influence the vote in November.
Facebook security first detected the new activity and shared the information with U.S. government officials. U.S. technology companies as well as intelligence agencies have shown more willingness this year to release information about foreign influence operations, having been criticized by lawmakers for being too cautious in 2016.
While the Chinese-created network gained more than 133,000 followers, Facebook said it had received little attention in the United States, with fewer than 3,000 U.S.-based accounts following it. The group posted information both for and against Trump and Biden.
“They were focused on driving division,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security at Facebook. “The engagement with the U.S. was both nascent and limited. It was both supportive and critical of the major political candidates in the U.S.”
Facebook does not release the number of page views, or impressions, that various posts receive. However, based on how the site works, users would have been unlikely to see a post unless they followed the Chinese group or its pages.
Gleicher said that Facebook had detected no other Chinese activity on its platform.
“With the U.S., the goal appeared to be audience-building,” said Ben Nimmo, whose firm, Graphika, worked with Facebook to release a report about the Chinese campaign. Nimmo said they had named the new Chinese operation Naval Gazing because of its largely maritime focus.
Despite Beijing’s distaste for Trump and his trade war, the Chinese government’s views on Biden are complicated. Biden has vowed a harder line on China’s oppression of ethnic minorities and moves to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy. And Chinese leaders believe Biden is more likely to be able to rally other nations to pressure China.
Current and former officials have said that to an extent, China is copying the Russian interference playbook from 2016. And like Russia in the last election, even though China has a preference for Biden, it is trying to obscure its efforts by conducting operations to sow division and chaos by playing all sides of an issue.
The network discovered by Facebook included 155 accounts, 11 pages, nine groups and six Instagram accounts. Posting in Chinese and English, the group largely pushed stories of interest to overseas Filipino workers, as well as content that was supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign for reelection in the Philippines.
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