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Experts Warn U.S. Should Prepare For Election Interference From China


China's propaganda strategy is changing, and tech companies are taking notice. Twitter and Facebook recently took down some accounts that they said were part of a Chinese state-backed effort to undermine the protests in Hong Kong. NPR's Tim Mak has the story.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: China is moving from information denial to something more active.

MATTHEW SCHRADER: Historically, China has focused less on disinformation outside of the country and more on trying to deny space to narratives that it doesn't like, trying to get people to censor themselves.

MAK: That's Matthew Schrader, a China analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy. He uses as an example what happened after a Norwegian committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident in 2010.

SCHRADER: China actually cut off all exports of salmon from Norway to China, which is a significant business for Norway - that's billions of dollars - as a way of saying to Norway, you shouldn't be putting this person on a platform.

MAK: China coupled this with the strategy of using state media outlets to paint a rosy version of the country.

PRISCILLA MORIUCHI: They seek to present China as a positive, kind of benign, cooperative international player.

MAK: That's Priscilla Moriuchi, the head of nation-state threat research at Recorded Future, a cyber intelligence company. But there has been a big shift in tactics. Just weeks ago, Twitter announced that it had removed nearly 1,000 fake accounts that it attributed to an operation by the Chinese state which was trying to spread political discord in Hong Kong. These fake accounts were part of a larger network of 200,000 accounts that were taken down before they were, quote, "substantially active." Facebook followed suit by saying that it, too, had found a number of fake accounts with more than 15,000 followers that were involved in, quote, "coordinated inauthentic behavior."

ADAM SCHIFF: It's a dangerous and disturbing escalation of their information operations. And sadly, I think we can only expect to see more of this.

MAK: That's Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. China's recent actions has longtime watchers of nation-state propaganda deeply worried because of the other powerful tools that Beijing could wield alongside its information operations. Brett Bruen worked at the National Security Council on countering Russian information operations.

BRETT BRUEN: China has several capabilities that Russia lacks. It has a massive aid program. It has massive trade relations. It has a whole host of other diplomatic capabilities and influence that Russia does not.

MAK: Now analysts are asking how China might use these tools against the United States. Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga is a policy analyst specializing in Asian security issues at the RAND Corporation.

NATHAN BEAUCHAMP-MUSTAFAGA: It is no longer inconceivable that China would have some ability to influence the U.S. election in 2020.

MAK: Schiff thinks that China would be less overt in its efforts than Russia was in 2016.

SCHIFF: I don't know that they'll cross the line that the Russians have crossed in quite overtly hacking and dumping information or doing a full-fledged St. Petersburg-like social media campaign. I think they'll be more discreet than that.

MAK: But he added that the U.S. should be prepared for the possibility of active interference from China.

SCHIFF: We have to be on guard for that.

MAK: Russia opened a Pandora's box with its 2016 disinformation campaign. The question is whether China or other nations will try to replicate it. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.


KING: And we should note that Facebook is an NPR sponsor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.