Clusters of new social media profiles emerge and interact with long-dormant accounts, seemingly exchanging viewpoints from across the American political spectrum.
Some sport American flags for profile pictures; others have images of beautiful women. Almost all are anonymous, though some impersonate real people.
In tweets and posts and messages they spread their views. Some stridently defend a woman’s right to have an abortion, others the right to life. Some defend the second amendment, others vehemently champion Black Lives Matter. Some claim that the United States is descending into a leftist tyranny. Still more say it’s headed toward fascism.
Above all, they post memes disparaging the United States’ political parties and governmental institutions. Here one finds a meme of President Joe Biden with a caption excoriating the Build Back Better slogan. Here one finds a meme of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) insinuating that the lawmaker has financial ties with Putin’s Russia.
It would be easy to conclude that these clusters of accounts are a perfect representation of the political polarization that has seized the United States in recent years. But it would be wrong.
None of these accounts are operated by Americans.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, is increasingly manipulating what Americans see and believe by sowing discord and rancor on social media. Such influence operations, far from being mere propaganda, are deployed in the pursuit of the CCP’s greater strategic ambition of undermining and displacing the United States as leader of the international order.
To be sure, the CCP’s ambition of replacing the democratic West with a Sino-centric authoritarianism is not new. But the methods that the regime is employing in its overseas influence operations are.
According to the testimony of security experts, lawmakers, and numerous reports, the CCP is adapting its strategy for psychological warfare against the weaknesses of open societies, and it is evolving its influence campaigns from corny propaganda about the glory of communism into subtler, more insidious disinformation campaigns intended to make Americans give up on their own country.
Rubio, who was himself the subject of a meme in one such influence operation, said that the effort was inextricably linked to the regime’s desire to undermine and destroy the United States.
“The Chinese Communist Party is laser-focused on undermining and, ultimately, overthrowing the United States,” the Florida senator told Epoch Times in an email. “It is working overtime to dominate and influence Americans in academia, technology, as well as local and federal government.”
“The United States must not be naïve to this threat, and it starts by recognizing and banning the companies, organizations, and software the CCP uses to influence Americans.”
China’s War on the American Mind
To understand why the CCP is exploiting social media to sow division among the American public, it is necessary to understand what the regime believes its influence operations are striving toward.
The Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report (pdf), which distills the Defense Department’s most authoritative assessments of China’s strategy and capabilities, highlights the development of a new method of psychological warfare emerging amongst the regime’s politico-military leadership.
The report says that the CCP’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is expanding and evolving its methods for conducting war on the mind in an effort to win real military advantage.
“As the PLA seeks to expand the reach of its influence operations around the world and to seize information dominance on the battlefield, it is researching and developing the next evolution of psychological warfare called cognitive domain operation[s] (CDO) that leverages subliminal messaging, deep fakes, overt propaganda, and public sentiment analysis,” the report stated.
The report describes CDO as “a more aggressive form of psychological warfare” intended to “affect a target’s cognition, decision making, and behavior.”
In short, CDO is the regime’s new methodology for breaking the will of an adversary, or else manipulating them into behaving in a manner more in accordance with the regime’s desires.
“The goal of CDO is to achieve what the PLA refers to as ‘mind dominance,’ defined as the use of propaganda as a weapon to influence public opinion to effect change in a nation’s social system, likely to create an environment favorable to China and reduce civilian and military resistance to PLA actions,” the report said.
“PLA articles on CDO state that seizing mind dominance in the cognitive domain and subduing the enemy without fighting is the highest realm of warfare.”
The reason why the CCP is turning Americans against one another by inflaming polarization is simple enough then: A nation at war with itself is hardly capable of fighting against communist China.
Sam Kessler, a geopolitical advisor with risk management firm North Star Support Group, said that the CCP’s new influence operations ought then to be considered within the broader context of its military doctrines and strategies.
Foremost among them is the regime’s doctrine of “Unrestricted Warfare,” through which the CCP commits all aspects of society to achieve victory, as well as its strategy leveraging the “Three Warfares” of legal, media, and psychological war.
“[The CCP] are implementing a cognitive and asymmetrical war, which are subversive operations aimed at causing fear, confusion, disruption, and polarization within American society as well as in other targeted countries,” Kessler said.
CCP Sparking ‘Societal Collapse’ of US
By framing how Americans discuss the issues of the times, and by polarizing them to the point of being unable to work with one another, Kessler believes that the CCP is setting the stage to ensure that the United States is incapable of meeting a crisis and more likely of sliding into a national death spiral.
“The goal is to weaken the foundation of a society and its institutions by employing a long game type of strategy that usually targets unsuspecting individuals and groups,” Kessler said.
“This can be implemented to cause distrust in American institutions … Once these things become tainted and eroded in the long term, it is usually very difficult to repair them. As a result, history has shown these methods [are] highly effective in causing societal collapse if not just chaos when allowed to happen over a long period of time.”
Perhaps nowhere is this ambition more clear than in the case of “DRAGONBRIDGE,” a recently discovered malign influence operation conducted in support of the CCP and its goals.
Intelligence firm Mandiant, which uncovered the ongoing operation, found that the campaign seeks to aggressively undermine U.S. interests by discouraging Americans from voting, inflaming political tensions, and claiming that the United States is covertly responsible for what is actually CCP aggression.
The DRAGONBRIDGE operation does this by impersonating legitimate groups, plagiarizing and altering news articles, and posing as U.S. citizens eager to criticize the United States’ record on race and social justice issues.
According to Kessler, such efforts are part and parcel of the regime’s strategy for weakening the United States from the inside.
“In many ways, cognitive warfare is more effective in draining a society’s ability to be ready to respond when there’s more confusion, poor morale, and depleted mental stamina,” Kessler said.
“After all, if the internal backbone of a society is weakened, wearied, and mentally exhausted through these targeted influence campaigns, then it is more susceptible to being manipulated and controlled by foreign adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran.”
CCP Influence Ops Increasing in Frequency and Sophistication
It was unclear in previous years if the regime would take direct action against that backbone. The regime has historically targeted members of the Chinese diaspora with pro-communist propaganda, and there is a steep learning curve from such operations to more broadly sowing political enmity among American citizens en masse.
That has changed, however. In a matter of only three or four years, the regime and its sponsored actors appear to have doubled down on creating chaos internationally, as is documented across several reports published by intelligence firm Recorded Future.
One 2019 report (pdf), for example, found that from 2016 to 2019, CCP influence operations fundamentally differed from those of other adversarial nations such as Russia.
Russia’s operations rely on bot networks and “troll farms”’ that operate in coordinated online influence campaigns aimed at destabilizing target nations by increasing intranational strife. Such campaigns create distrust and confusion among voters in democratic societies, and thereby erode the society’s capacity to respond to more overt threats from the nation directing the influence operation.
Prior to 2019, the CCP largely exploited the United States’ open media environment to promote positive views of China and communism. Its state-backed influencers used paid advertising and bot networks to earn favorable views abroad.
By 2022, however, another report (pdf) found that the CCP had successfully pivoted to into a new phase of influence operations, marked by the targeted messaging of well-defined audiences that were segmented based on granular demographic data, not unlike that used by global marketing and research agencies.
“2019 marked a turning point in China’s use of online disinformation, with foreign-facing computational propaganda increasing rapidly,” the report stated.
“In the post-2019 period, inauthentic campaigns and online personalities have become staples of CCP propaganda. YouTube, Facebook, and other global social media platforms have removed tens of thousands of accounts suspected of inauthentic manipulation attributed to China in the past three years.”
These new accounts, according to Recorded Future, likely receive guidance or material support from the CCP’s United Front Work Department, a powerful agency charged with overseeing global inflence operations, and the regime’s top intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security.
What’s more, the swift evolution in tactics and strategy could indicate that the regime is learning to conduct psychological warfare from a more senior partner like Russia, whose own cyber tactics the new Chinese methods closely resemble.
“China and Russia have forged a very close partnership that has greatly evolved during the last three decades,” Kessler said. “It’s very possible that we’ll witness a formalized strategic alliance between China and Russia to counter the U.S. and the West more directly at some point in our lives, if it hasn’t occurred already.”
“As a result, Beijing and Moscow have improved their defense and security ties in addition to other things like economics, infrastructure, energy, and natural resources. This especially includes cyber partnerships between China and Russia in terms of cooperation and coordination regarding information security and operations between the two.”
Data at the Heart of CCP Influence Campaigns
Given the regime’s newfound focus on cognitive domain operations and its increasingly strident behavior in attempting to undermine the interests of the United States, Americans may rightly wonder what it is that powers China’s disinformation machine.
The answer is data.
Indeed, the regime is leveraging vast troves of data on American citizens every single day as part of its effort to disrupt the United States from within.
The 2022 Record Future report found that the CCP’s deployment of “precise communication,” a means of conducting influence operations based on targeted audiences, required an extraordinary amount of in-depth data organized at the level of individuals, communities, and nations, and further tailored to account for culture, economics, religion, and personal interests, among other factors.
“China’s implementation of this strategy requires an in-depth understanding of target audiences, which is being attained—with the aid of international firms—through area studies research, in-country surveys, and online behavioral data,” the report said.
Moreover, the report said, the regime’s propaganda arms were almost certainly clients of China Data Matrix, a China-based media monitoring company “that claims to have ‘complete coverage’ of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, YouTube, Line, and other major platforms, web portals, communities, forums, and blogs from over 100 countries and 10 languages.”
It is perhaps unsurprising then that CCP laws categorize data as a national resource, subject to communist collectivization, and therefore mandate that all data stored in the country or by Chinese companies must be handed over to the Party upon request.
This need for data to fuel the regime’s influence operations also makes the presence of Chinese-owned companies in the United States problematic.
The type of data that might be gleaned from social media giant TikTok through its China-based parent company ByteDance, for example, could be used to directly inform the construction of an influence campaign by communist authorities.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Republicans take majority in January, is acutely aware of the problem. He believes that the regime’s ability to obtain the data of American users through companies like TikTok is a key part of the puzzle.
“Unfortunately, it is no surprise that the CCP is working to sow political discord among the American people,” McCaul told The Epoch Times in an email. “The U.S. is failing to take the threat of the CCP seriously.”
“Bytedance, a CCP-controlled company, operates the most popular social media network among American youth, and CCP entities are buying up our sensitive data. A Republican-led House is going to attack these threats head on.”
Defending an Open System Difficult, but Possible
The CCP seeks to shape the behavior of Americans to the detriment of the United States. It aims to do this by exploiting the openness of American society and U.S.-based social media platforms. The threat of domestic crisis stemming from influence operations is rising.
Developments in recent months show that the CCP is gaining in its quest to polarize Americans and undermine the American political system.
In November, China-backed bots spammed Twitter taking over hash tags and blocking out regional searches in order to prevent users from seeing anit-lockdown protests occurring across China.
In October, a report found that TikTok failed to prevent 90 percent of election misinformation directed at Americans ahead of the 2022 midterms, including advertising that contained explicitly false information intended to prevent Americans from voting.
In September, Meta dismantled several China-based influence operations, the substance of which was described in the opening of this story.
China-based actors have tried to influence U.S. elections, attempted to undermine the U.S. stability by creating racial enmity, and attempted to discredit and even attack Chinese dissidents running for Congress.
According to a another Recorded Future report (pdf) published in October, such efforts will only increase in the years to come.
“China’s state-sponsored influencers are almost certainly conducting malign influence operations targeting English and Chinese-speaking U.S. audiences with divisive political multimedia content on social media,” the report stated.
All is not lost, however. According to Kessler, there is hope in transparency, and the ability of CCP agents to stir political vitriol and undermine U.S. national security lessens every time such an effort is made clear.
To that end, Kessler said that the future of TikTok was just one weathervane one could use to tell which way the wind was blowing.
“Recently, there have been greater efforts to deter the level of influence that TikTok has on the American mediascape,” Kessler said. “It will only continue to grow as more lawmakers, federal officials, and investigators associate TikTok with Chinese state media as well as being a tool of Chinese espionage.”
“Treating it as a tool of espionage and subversive warfare will either eliminate TikTok from the American mediascape or at least completely reform it with algorithms that won’t be designed at harming the social fabric of the country and its children.”