Lawmakers sound alarm over Chinese influence efforts

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is warning that the Chinese government is harnessing social media platforms to carry out disinformation campaigns about the protests in Hong Kong in an attempt to manipulate public opinion abroad.

The efforts crossed a line for tech companies Facebook and Twitter. The social media firms announced this week they were shuttering numerous accounts tied to the Chinese government, alleging that the communist state had carried out disinformation campaigns on its platforms.

Experts say this marks the first time China has launched a significant social media-based disinformation campaign geared toward Western audiences, particularly the U.S., and lawmakers warn it could be a taste of what’s in store for the 2020 presidential race.

“I think our digital platforms like Facebook and Google should view this as a trial run for our elections in 2020,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Certain foreign governments, including China, are attempting to limit the dissemination of facts while simultaneously spreading their own disinformation — and if they succeed in doing it to the people of Hong Kong, what will stop them from trying to do it to us?”

Lawmakers offer applause: Lawmakers and experts praised the Silicon Valley giants for taking action, saying their response signals some lessons have been learned since the 2016 presidential election, when Russia’s efforts went undetected for months.

“Twitter and Facebook acted appropriately in quickly discovering a substantial disinformation operation linked to China targeting protestors in Hong Kong, disclosing the activity and accounts to the public and removing those networks from their platforms,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement to The Hill. “We know from experience that social media platforms can be powerful engines for spreading false information online with real world consequences.”

…And criticism: Experts are also pushing the platforms to go further with their policies, as some question how Chinese-owned media were able to purchase advertisements on top U.S. social media platforms in the first place.

Using Russia’s playbook: “The Chinese are moving the techniques they use to control their domestic population to target foreign audiences,” Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity and technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill.

Paul Barrett, a disinformation researcher who serves as the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said that if China were to launch a U.S.-focused campaign during next year’s presidential campaign, it would likely favor Democrats, considering the country’s strained relationship with President Trump.

“The Russians wanted to get Donald Trump elected,” Barrett said. “I assume the Chinese would … go against Trump because they’re not very fond of him.”