Amidst the devastating wildfires that struck Maui last month, China’s information warriors seized the opportunity to spread false information. In a rapid change of tactics, they claimed that the wildfires were not natural but instead the result of a secret “weather weapon” being tested by the United States. These false posts, accompanied by manipulated photographs generated by artificial intelligence programs, aimed to give an air of authenticity to the disinformation campaign.
Traditionally, China’s influence campaigns have focused on amplifying propaganda defending its policies on Taiwan and other subjects. However, researchers from Microsoft and various organizations have now uncovered a more direct attempt by Beijing to sow discord in the United States. This shift comes at a time when the Biden administration and Congress are navigating how to counter China without escalating tensions or misusing artificial intelligence to magnify disinformation.
While the impact of China’s campaign is difficult to measure, early indications suggest that few social media users engaged with the most outlandish conspiracy theories. Brad Smith, the vice chairman and president of Microsoft, criticized China for exploiting a natural disaster for political gain, stating that such actions are unworthy of any country aspiring to greatness.
Russia also capitalized on the Maui fires for political purposes, spreading posts that highlighted the United States’ spending on the war in Ukraine and suggested redirecting the funds for domestic disaster relief.
The researchers, including those from Microsoft, Recorded Future, the RAND Corporation, NewsGuard, and the University of Maryland, suggested that China was building a network of accounts that could be used in future information operations, including the next U.S. presidential election. This follows a pattern set by Russia leading up to the 2016 election.
In the face of potential influence operations in the upcoming election, U.S. intelligence officials believe that China is likely to try to diminish President Biden and raise the profile of former President Donald J. Trump. Their assessment is based on Mr. Trump’s previous statements regarding pulling Americans out of Asia and cutting China’s access to advanced chips and equipment.
China’s promotion of conspiracy theories surrounding the wildfires is not the first instance of Beijing’s role in spreading disinformation. President Biden previously expressed his concerns to President Xi Jinping about China’s involvement in such activities during a meeting in Bali.
While there is no direct evidence of coordination between China and Russia in these campaigns, there is noticeable alignment and synchronization in their messaging, particularly when it comes to criticizing U.S. policies. This combined effort suggests a new phase in the disinformation wars, bolstered by the use of artificial intelligence tools.
1. What were the false claims made about the Hawaii wildfires?
False posts claimed that the wildfires in Maui were not natural but instead caused by a secret “weather weapon” being tested by the United States.
2. How did China’s disinformation campaign differ from its previous tactics?
China’s traditional influence campaigns focused on defending its policies, while the recent campaign directly aimed to sow discord in the United States by spreading conspiracy theories about the wildfires.
3. Is there evidence of coordination between China and Russia in these campaigns?
Although there is no direct evidence of coordination, researchers have noticed alignment and synchronization in messaging between China and Russia when criticizing U.S. policies.
4. What is the potential impact of China’s disinformation campaign?
The exact impact is difficult to measure, but early indications suggest that few social media users engaged with the most outlandish conspiracy theories spread by China.
5. How do U.S. intelligence officials believe China may try to influence the next U.S. presidential election?
U.S. intelligence officials believe that China is likely to diminish President Biden and raise the profile of former President Donald J. Trump. This assessment is based on Trump’s previous statements regarding pulling Americans out of Asia and cutting China’s access to advanced chips and equipment.