When forest fires destroyed large parts of Maui, Hawaii, in August, killing at least 115 people, Chinese information warriors found themselves in good stead. Numerous pro-China social media accounts and blogs spread the claim that an experimental US military weapon started the fires. The rating service NewsGuard identified 85 relevant accounts with almost identical posts and videos. It was an attack experiment by the US military with a “weather weapon,” according to many posts in the campaign. This was discovered by the British secret service MI6. The content was distributed across 14 major platforms such as Facebook, X (Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, Telegram and the blog platform Medium.
NewsGuard speaks of a hoax that was apparently initiated by Chinese speakers. The newly discovered network is primarily aimed at the USA, but also at users in other countries. In addition to Chinese, posts appeared in 15 other languages - including German, English, French, Italian and Russian. Facebook parent Meta has explained that some of the suspicious accounts are part of a spam operation from China that has been observed since 2019. A Reddit spokeswoman made similar comments.
AI in action
Experts from the IT security company Recorded Future come to similar conclusions. They also point out that Chinese propaganda is readily taken up by Russian media in particular. According to the New York Times (NYT), in order to increase plausibility, the posts contained photos that were apparently created by programs using artificial intelligence (AI). They were among the first “to use these new tools to enhance the aura of authenticity of a disinformation campaign.” Meanwhile, authorities in Hawaii have released footage suggesting that downed power lines caused by Hurricane Dora caused the fires.
The Chinese government is increasingly associated with campaigns that create and spread disinformation online. In such operations, Beijing-linked propagandists are also expected to increasingly use AI to create artificial images and deepfakes, Microsoft researchers wrote in a report published on Thursday. The aim is to imitate US voters and exploit divisions around race, ideology and controversial issues such as gun violence. In addition, hacker groups linked to the Chinese Communist Party have carried out more and more cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the USA.
Is Beijing sowing discord in the US?
Researchers at the US think tank Rand point to reports that Beijing has used early forms of generative AI to create fake profile pictures, for example. A British company was commissioned to produce synthetic videos with fake speakers, which the scientists classify as social media manipulation 2.0. Domestically, China has growing technical capabilities to develop large language models, which should expand such capabilities at home and abroad. The NYT speaks of a new Chinese tactic: While Russia carried out hacking operations and disinformation campaigns in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections, the Middle Kingdom remained largely neutral. The latest efforts suggest that Beijing also wants to sow increased discord directly in the United States. The US military, for its part, wants to use deepfakes for propaganda.
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