- The effort includes discouraging people from voting and claiming ballots cast won’t matter.
- DHS Secretary Mayorkas vowed this week to be vigilant of foreign disinformation campaigns.
- Federal officials have warned of the various threats China poses to the U.S.
WASHINGTON – The FBI and Department of Homeland Security say the upcoming elections are safe from foreign governments trying to hack the actual process of voting.
But one hostile nation – a newly aggressive China – is ramping up its disinformation and propaganda campaigns to sway voters, sow discord among Americans and undermine confidence in democratic institutions, U.S. officials and cybersecurity analysts say.
“We’ve seen evidence that the Chinese government is sponsoring information operations discrediting democracy and due process in elections in the U.S.,” said Sandra Joyce, the head of global intelligence for Mandiant, a top cybersecurity firm that advises the government and social media giants. The main vehicle for that effort, she said, was a group of China-linked operatives whom U.S. cybersecurity analysts have given the name “Dragonbridge.”
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In an interview with USA TODAY, Joyce said the pro-China effort has included putting out content that aims to discourage people from voting and claiming the ballots they cast won’t matter because America’s democratic system of government doesn’t work.
Two U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the broad outlines of the China disinformation campaign targeting the upcoming midterm elections in November. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing U.S. counter-intelligence efforts.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to be vigilant against threats to the Nov. 8 elections, including preventing any disinformation campaigns linked to Russia, Iran or China that could undermine the perception of the integrity of the elections. The Justice Department renewed its promise “to ensure that our elections are secure and free from foreign malign influence and interference,” including covert information operations by foreign governments that seek “to promulgate disinformation through social media.”
Cybersecurity analysts – and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials – described the election meddling effort as part of a much broader campaign by China to gain global geopolitical dominance at the expense of the United States and its democratic allies.
China is conducting such “information operations” on various issues – and in more than 10 languages across 30 social media platforms in dozens of countries, Joyce said.
The campaign against the U.S. election isn’t new. The same pro-China online operatives in Dragonbridge also targeted the U.S. 2020 presidential election, Joyce said, including posing as Americans in Texas and elsewhere to try to sway their fellow citizens.
“What’s changed is that they have dramatically scaled their operation and their effort to promote these kinds of narratives” undermining U.S. democracy, Joyce said.
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So far, it appears the election disinformation campaign has had limited success in conning Americans into believing the fake online posts, according to a Mandiant report on Dragonbridge released Wednesday.
But the broader Beijing effort remains of great concern, Joyce and U.S. intelligence officials said.
Besides attacking American democracy, Dragonbridge is spreading other false anti-U.S. narratives, including that Washington was behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline explosions in September. President Joe Biden has called the incident “a deliberate act of sabotage,” after Russia claimed that the West was responsible for the explosions.
Dragonbridge also has been pushing the false narrative that the U.S. is actually behind another high-profile China-linked threat group known as APT 41, Mandiant said.
“And the piece that is so daunting is that we know it’s a problem but we can’t measure its impact, and we can’t really solve for how to stop it,” Joyce said of the overall effort by Beijing.
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‘High confidence’ disinformation is coming from China
Mandiant has been unable to trace the current election influence campaign directly to the Chinese government, Joyce said, noting that such attribution is virtually impossible given the sophisticated nature of such attacks.
But Mandiant assesses “with high confidence” that Dragonbridge is working on behalf of China in its “aggressive attempts to discredit the U.S. democratic process, including attempts to discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.”
The campaign underscores the “continued interest in experimentation and creativity” by Dragonbridge operatives in trying to find new ways to influence American voters, Mandiant said.
That includes altering or fabricating online news articles and expanding its use of “personas posing as Americans” to promote politically themed anti-U.S. content. Dragonbridge is also using these fake accounts and social media content to “criticize American society via narratives regarding racial strife and social injustice,” Mandiant said.
In September 2022, Dragonbridge accounts posted an English-language video showing rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as a narrator asserts that “the solution to America’s ills is not to vote for someone,” but rather “to root out this ineffective and incapacitated system.”
Another screen shot from the video, cited by Mandiant, shows photos of Biden with the words, “Can voting make America a better place?” and a voice-over asking, “But does voting really matter that much?”
The video also seeks to cast doubt on whether elected U.S. lawmakers – and the legislative process in general – are having a tangible impact on Americans’ lives. And it cited statistics comparing the number of proposed bills in Congress to those that have become laws, Mandiant said, “further questioning the usefulness of enacted laws, and criticizing components of specific laws to support their arguments.”
Dragonbridge also has posted content claiming that political infighting, partisanship, polarization, and division had become fundamental aspects of American democracy. And its fake online accounts have cited frequent mentions of “civil war” and incidents of politically motivated violence – including confrontations between individuals supporting opposing parties and acts against the FBI – as evidence of the deterioration of the political process and its impending demise, Mandiant said.
And while Mandiant said the campaign appears to have had limited impact, Dragonbridge “continues to spend significant resources to pursue and sustain multiple operations simultaneously.”
Lynn Mattice, a prominent risk management consultant who has advised numerous U.S. Democratic and Republican administrations on China, said it’s no surprise that the Beijing government “is actively engaged in disinformation and influencing our elections.”
“The Chinese Communist Party officials view Americans as easy marks, ones that are easily influenced by what they hear on social media. At the same time they are actively collecting vital information on Americans who engage on social media and online video platforms,” said Mattice, who conducts security reviews for major U.S. corporations and smaller companies.
Not a new problem
Although Mandiant’s new assessment offers new specifics about malicious disinformation campaigns linked to China, other cyber security analysts have expressed similar concerns and reported similar activity in the past.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials also have issued more generalized warnings about influence operations by Beijing and other U.S. adversaries including Russia and Iran in the run-up to the midterm elections.
On Monday, Justice Department officials unsealed charges against 13 Chinese operatives involved in three separate influence campaigns against the U.S., including two intelligence officers accused in a brazen attempt to obstruct a federal criminal investigation into the Chinese-based telecommunications company Huawei.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray announced the charges at a news conference at DOJ headquarters, saying China was trying to effectively “lie, cheat and steal” their way into gaining unfair advantage over the United States in the global arena.
Garland and Wray declined to comment Monday about Chinese efforts to disrupt upcoming U.S. elections. But the FBI director alluded to the threat this past January in a sharply worded speech about how no country poses a greater danger to the United States than China.
The Chinese Communist Party threatens the United States’ “economic security and our freedoms – our freedom of speech, of conscience, our freedom to elect and be served by our representatives without foreign meddling, our freedom to prosper when we toil and invent,” Wray told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California.
The two U.S. intelligence officials told USA TODAY that various task forces and initiatives have been established across federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify and counter anti-U.S. messaging from China and other adversaries. That includes a Department of Homeland Security “Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation” or MDM team that is charged with building national resilience to those types of threats and foreign influence activities.
Phil Venables, chief information security officer for Google Cloud, told USA TODAY that the social media giant shares Mandiant’s concerns. Google recently purchased Mandiant, in part, to better combat malign foreign influence and disinformation across its platforms and the businesses it serves, Venables said.
“There’s not really anything that we can talk about” specifically about the potential threat posed by China or other adversaries in the run-up to the election, said Venables, who serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “But we obviously spend a lot of time managing disinformation (and) misinformation on the social platform part of Google businesses.”