NBC News: Kevin Collier

A sprawling online propaganda campaign that pushes pro-China messaging has been trying to influence American voters, researchers say.

Two companies that study large-scale online influence operations published research this week showing that a pro-China campaign was active and targeting the U.S. midterm elections as recently as this month. Researchers found fake accounts across the internet that sought to spread messaging such as the superiority of the Chinese state and denigrating American democracy.

So far, there’s no evidence that the influence operation has been effective. But such efforts show that pro-China influence operations targeting the West are experimenting with new tactics and are increasingly aimed at shaping American elections.

Mandiant, a cybersecurity company recently acquired by Google, said in a report published Wednesday that researchers found related material across multiple social media platforms, including videos purportedly from Americans that pushed pro-China messages and downplayed the effectiveness of voting.

Mandiant declined to name the platforms on which it found the videos and other posts, and say whether they included YouTube, which is also owned by Google.

The general focus of the political posts echoed that of Russian information operations that tried to inflame U.S. partisan infighting, especially ahead of the 2016 and 2018 elections. The Justice Department charged both Russian intelligence officers and a private company with ties to the Kremlin with leading those operations.

While the videos and posts from the pro-China campaign weren’t widely viewed, some explicitly promoted civil war and political violence in the U.S., said John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of intelligence analysis.

“They’re very aggressive. They seem to be very well resourced, if not very effective,” Hultquist said.

“They’re trying to put protesters on the streets of the United States, which is pretty brash,” he added.

The other report, from social media analytics firm Alethea, found 165 Twitter accounts that misled users about who they were and posted pro-China messages in English. About a third of those accounts posted inflammatory content about U.S. elections, including claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Some echoed right-wing extremist content and alluded to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Lee Foster, Alethea’s senior vice president of analysis, said that if China’s government was behind that Twitter campaign, it shows Beijing has “an increasing willingness to engage with domestic U.S. politics.”

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