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Are China and Iran meddling in US elections? It’s complicated.

Don’t expect them to follow the Russian playbook.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center unveils its new “Wall of Spies Experience” museum on October 1, 2019, in Washington, DC.
William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, on October 1, 2019.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

This spring, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua posted a roughly two-minute video titled “Once Upon a Virus” on social media, including on official Chinese government accounts.

The video is in English and features Lego-like figures. One of the Statue of Liberty, representing America, and a warrior Lego representing China, with what looks like medical workers decked out in PPE, behind it.

The video attempts to summarize a pandemic, with the Chinese Legos acting responsibly (“It’s airborne,” the warrior says) and the Statue of Liberty Lego downplaying said warnings (“It will magically go away in April”) as she starts to get sick. The video ends with the Statue of Liberty figure red-faced, in a mask, hooked up to an IV.

The video had at least 2 million views on Twitter, according to the Hollywood Reporter, a website that is blocked in China. This was meant for an audience — in April 2020, perhaps a still locked down and disillusioned one — overseas.

The well-produced propaganda caught the notice of China watchers. It was satire, and a bit more skillful than the country’s more traditional — and usually clunkier — attempts at disinformation. It was, above all, a reminder of what China wants to accomplish with any of its influence operations: advance China.

The same goes for China’s motivations when it comes to meddling in the United States — and what that might mean for the 2020 presidential election.

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has said it is “concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran” when it comes to the US vote in November. The warning comes four years after Russia’s interference efforts in the 2016 election, which never really stopped and continue to unsettle the country. Intelligence and law enforcement officials have long warned that Russia is not alone; other foreign adversaries are getting in on the game, China and Iran among them.

But just because US officials are calling out China and Iran alongside Russia doesn’t mean those two countries are following Russia’s script.

“I would expect each country to follow a different playbook, just because they have different approaches to foreign policy,” Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told me. “And China and Iran already know that everybody’s watching how Russia does it. I don’t think they just want to repeat that.”

Russia’s main strategy is to sow discord and division, and diminish faith in democracy. It also favors President Donald Trump, partly because he helps advance the first two goals, and because of his oft-stated desire to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.

China and Iran are more averse to chaos in the US, and are much more focused on pushing their own national objectives. They want different things from the United States, Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, told me.

For China, that might mean promoting its Covid-19 narrative, or getting the US to shut up about Hong Kong protests. For Iran, that could mean promoting criticism of Israel or US sanctions policy.

All three countries have different capabilities. China might not use online trolls in the way Russia or even Iran does because it has other, far more effective tools — economic, technological — that could achieve those aims.

And, of course, interference may go beyond disinformation or influence campaigns. There is the threat of hacking or cyber intrusions of politicians, or campaigns, or even election infrastructure. There is also a concern over how individuals with ties to foreign governments might use money in politics. And there’s probably something else, because as one analyst told me, what the US doesn’t want to be doing is fighting the last war.

It also doesn’t mean Russia, China, and Iran are equal threats, or that they’re all similarly invested in any 2020 outcome. The ODNI, in its assessment, gave an overview of each country’s likely political preferences. But there’s been some skepticism that China and Iran are as active as Russia is this election cycle; Democrats, in particular, have accused the Trump administration of trying to group all three countries together, creating a false equivalence when it comes to the 2020 election threat.

A Department of Homeland Security whistleblower complaint also alleges that the administration tried to downplay the Russia threat because it upsets Trump, and that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien pressured the department to elevate China and Iran activities to the level of Russia’s, even though that didn’t fit with the actual intelligence data available.

So what should Americans make of the Iran and China threat in 2020? Here’s a look at what we know — and a lot of what we don’t — about what foreign adversaries not named Russia may be doing in 2020, and beyond.

What Russia wants isn’t what everyone else wants

Meddling in US elections is nothing new for Moscow. The Soviet Union did it throughout the Cold War. But in 2016, Russia carried out an influence operation that successfully exploited social media and United States’ political dysfunction, rattling the American body politic then and even today.

Here are the highlights: Russians trolls amplified hyperpartisan or misleading news on US social media through the Internet Research Agency, an operation funded by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Operatives linked to Russian military intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee, dumping the information through WikiLeaks to try to stoke divisions within the Democratic Party and disparage the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Russians with ties to the Kremlin made overtures to the Trump campaign, which came under federal investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of conspiracy between the campaign and Russians, though he documented numerous links. A bipartisan Senate report also explored those ties, and documented many interactions between Trump campaign operatives and figures with connections to Russian intelligence.

Russians also probed election systems in all 50 states, entering voter and registration databases. There is no evidence any votes were changed, though another bipartisan Senate report found that in some instances, the Russians could have if they wanted to.

Russia is still pushing disinformation through social media and has reportedly attempted to hack campaigns associated with both Democrats and Republicans. The Kremlin is also filtering pro-Russia narratives through Ukrainian politicians to undermine Biden and the Democrats, talking points that are being regurgitated by Trump and GOP allies. The ODNI has said that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.”

Taken together, Moscow’s tactics create chaos and distrust in US institutions and democracy, exacerbating America’s partisan divides like a finger pressed to a bruise.

Based on what’s known publicly, China and Iran are echoing some of those strategies. They’re spreading disinformation. They reportedly targeted campaigns and political entities.

But China and Iran want different things when it comes to America.

Russia wants to disrupt and destabilize and confuse people on how to see the world. Iran and China would like the world to see things their way. At least right now, China, in particular, sees a lot more value in building itself up than in tearing America apart.

“For China and Iran, ultimately, their interests are not served by an American political system that is chaotic, unable to think long-term, make strategic decisions about their relationships with either of those two countries,” Priscilla Moriuchi, an expert on state-sponsored cyber operations and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said.

This is not to say that China and Iran are cool with the United States as is. But China doesn’t want a chaotic world, Brookings’s West told me. It wants stability. So if it’s going to meddle in the 2020 election, it’s not out to cause Russian-style pandemonium.

And what about who China and Iran want to win?

The ODNI report says Russia wants to denigrate Biden, but says Iran and China have particular preferences when it comes to the 2020 election. US intelligence assess China “prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection.” But the ODNI doesn’t say that China is necessarily tipping the scales for Biden. Instead, China’s operations are mostly focused on deflecting criticism of China.

As for Iran, the ODNI says it seeks to “undermine President Trump” and democratic institutions, saying it’s mostly focused on online and anti-US propaganda.

This has created a sense that Russia is on one side and China and Iran are on the other — one for Trump, two for Biden. But this is the wrong way to look at it, experts told me. It muddles the actual efforts and objectives of each of these actors.

“It’s certainly true that different US adversaries might have different preferences for the outcome of the election,” Brooking, of the Atlantic Council, told me. “But they don’t go about executing their goals the same way.”

Preference can be challenging to assess. It can change. It might not be all that strong. Most critically, it does not necessarily mean a country is directly intervening or taking dramatic action to help or hurt a particular candidate.

“There’s a big difference between specific actions taken by a foreign power to interfere in the election and disrupt it and actively undermine the integrity of it, versus preference,” Carrie Cordero, a national and cybersecurity expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me.

This is a US presidential election; Beijing has a preference, but so do Brussels and Mexico City and Tokyo. Allies and adversaries alike are going to have an idea of an outcome they’d like to see based on their own foreign policy, national security, and economic interests. As Cordero said, that’s not the same thing as “taking specific actions using their intelligence services, using their military, cyber capability to actively affect the outcome of our election.”

China’s influence operations revolve around China

In August 2019, Twitter and Facebook took down accounts linked to China. Twitter, removing nearly 1,000 accounts, called it a “significant state-backed information operation” that sought to sow discord around the Hong Kong protests.

At the time, protests in Hong Kong against an extradition bill had transformed into a massive pro-democracy movement, a direct threat to China. So China pushed back, using social media accounts to spin the demonstrations as violent, and its participants as terrorists and rioters.

When it comes to Chinese disinformation campaigns, that’s where they’ve mostly been focused: on issues and places close to Beijing. Hong Kong, of course. And Taiwan, where China actively tried to spread disinformation in the January presidential elections.

Covid-19 — and the US-China tensions over the virus — has helped accelerate the arrival of more overt Chinese propaganda in the US. “This was prompted in part by US’s own attempt to rebrand the coronavirus as the ‘China virus,’” Brooking told me. “But it is not clear that China is really interested in turning a lot of this apparatus to privilege one candidate or another in the presidential election.”

So far, China hasn’t really shown itself to be interested in that kind of disruption, James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told me. Instead, he said, China is “more interested in getting the US off their back.”

“With China, it’s to benefit China,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, told me. “It’s about promoting a positive image of China, of their coronavirus response, of the political situation in China. It’s about putting forth that Chinese worldview.”

So while China does touch on US politics, Renée DiResta, a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who’s studied influence operations, wrote in an email, “there is not much evidence of a ‘Russia-style’ extended influence campaign to interfere in US society or elections.”

When China does try to comment directly on US politics, it tends to pivot around issues Beijing cares about — China’s handling of the coronavirus compared to the US, or when Chinese officials used the George Floyd protests to attempt to call out the US’s hypocrisy on Hong Kong and criticism of China for its human rights abuses.

The results, though, can sometimes seem a little inelegant. China tightly controls information at home through traditional and state-run media, and on social media through pro-Chinese Communist Party social media posters known as the “50 Cent Army.”

So sometimes it all seems a little over-the-top when directed abroad. China also occasionally reveals its blind spots on the nuances of American politics. For example, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tried to tweet in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters, but wrote “all lives matter.”

But Moriuchi, at the Belfer Center, cautioned against the notion that this somehow means China is the JV team to Russia’s varsity, because, again, they’re essentially playing two different games. Russia is trying to disrupt the 2020 election and see what kind of disorder it can create. Beijing is playing the long game.

China isn’t doing what Russia is doing because it doesn’t need to

Russia is an adversary, but Moscow can’t directly challenge the US’s economic dominance, or its position in global hegemony. Trying to bolster the Russian political system in the US wouldn’t be as useful in weakening US democracy as, for instance, amplifying doubts about mail-in voting. (And that wouldn’t be the case where Russia does have more influence, in, say, Belarus.)

Russia’s disruption tactics are a kind of asymmetric warfare against a larger power. It’s low tech and not all that costly, but America’s homegrown political dysfunction has made it seem wildly effective.

This isn’t the case for China. China is challenging the US for global hegemony. “China — the Chinese Communist Party — believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in July. China does want to manipulate the American political system to help achieve those ends. It just has a lot more capabilities than Russia does.

“It’s certainly true that if China wanted, they could have extraordinary impact on this social media space,” Brooking said. “But the Chinese also don’t need to do that.” They’re the second-largest economy in the world, he added. “They have so many levers of influence and power, which don’t rely on creating sock puppet accounts and botnets.”

China is carefully, and strategically, expanding its influence in the US in ways that might not fit with our perception of “meddling.” And if China doesn’t like what the US or others are saying about its policies, it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on a fake Facebook page.

Take China’s economic influence. Businesses and massive industries rely on China’s markets. Beijing knows this. Think of what happened with the NBA tweet about Hong Kong. Or China’s influence in Hollywood, the most recent example being a Disney film partially produced in Xinjiang province, where China is repressing the Uighur minority.

“The Chinese don’t want you to say what we did in Hong Kong was bad, and they use market pressure and money and influence operations to push that China’s great: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’” CSIS’s Lewis said.

This also prompts certain industries or institutions to self-censor, tiptoeing around sensitive issues to avoid displeasing China. But China can also more directly use its economic prowess, enticing Wall Street or Hollywood with investment or funding think tanks and universities that may push more Beijing-friendly talking points.

There are also legitimate concerns about what China is doing with its technology. China uses apps like WeChat to spread pro-Chinese messaging, including to the Chinese diaspora around the world, and the government almost certainly uses it as a surveillance tool. The same goes for concerns about censorship and/or data tracking on Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.

And then there are the hacking operations meant to gather intelligence — that is, to spy. FBI Director Wray said in that same July speech that the US opens a counterintelligence case against China every 10 hours; of the FBI’s 5,000 counterintelligence cases, about half involve China.

China has waged a relentless campaign to steal technological and trade secrets from the United States. Hackers with ties to Chinese military or intelligence have carried out cyber operations to steal massive amounts of data — hacks like the 2017 Equifax breach that affected about half of all Americans, or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack.

Microsoft said this week that China has attempted to hack political campaigns, specifically the email accounts of Biden’s campaign staffers and one former Trump administration official. It has also targeted people at think tanks, according to the New York Times. China has hacked campaigns before, including probing internal documents of the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns in 2008.

“Most of the activity we’ve seen out of China has been what we might call cyber espionage,” Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told me. “China does not have a track record of stealing a lot of information and then releasing it publicly. That’s not to say they couldn’t do it — or they would never do it.”

So China is probing campaigns like the Russians (and Iranians), but what it will do with that information is a lot less clear. In 2016, Russia released stolen information through WikiLeaks, which was far more dramatic and influential than just quietly collecting information for its own use. China, we know, has these cyber capabilities, but so far it hasn’t tried to dump any information to alter the presidential race.

And while these kinds of cyber intrusion and other forms of intelligence gathering are not exactly good or desirable for the US, they’re also not all that surprising — it would be kind of weird if foreign adversaries like China weren’t trying to collect data and information on campaigns — because someone is going to win, and that will be the US administration China must deal with.

The Trump administration’s hard line against China — and its attempts to deflect blame for Covid-19 — has perhaps hurt the credibility of its warnings when it comes to China. Add to that the whistleblower complaint suggesting the White House is trying to inflate the China threat.

But many experts and analysts I spoke to said that China has the capabilities to sway US politics; it all depends on how it wants to use them.

“There’s no question China’s the most technologically sophisticated for influence campaigns that reach beyond just elections,” Corri Zoli, associate teaching professor and director of research for the Institute for Security Policy and Law at Syracuse University, told me.

What this means for 2020 specifically is much harder to parse, particularly based on the information that’s publicly available. But experts said when it comes to China, it is very focused on the long-term goal of eclipsing the United States, and so Beijing is more methodical and sophisticated in its approach. This makes China extremely risk-averse when it comes to its foreign policy or national security objectives.

“They tend to do some test and see, and these kinds of marginal and incremental changes,” Moriuchi said of China. She said this election cycle may be like a testing ground for some of the influence operations China may want to pursue in the future: “what is helping them accomplish their goals, what’s working, what’s not.”

Iran is an adversary, but it isn’t in the same league as Russia or China

If China wants greater world influence, Iran wants regional influence.

“They want to center Iran as leader of the wider Islamic world. And they want to assail Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Brooking said. “They’re also extremely critical of Israel. And they cast themselves as the principal defender and resistor against US global hegemony.”

Because of this, it can also make it a little easier to spot Iranian disinformation. “In virtually all of the propaganda, the fake websites, the bot accounts and sock puppets are promoting one of these narratives,” he added. “So it’s really not that hard to figure out the sort of propaganda that’s in Iran’s corner.”

That doesn’t mean Iran isn’t trying, though.

Last fall, Facebook took down some Iranian-linked pages, including a site called BLM News. According to Facebook, “the Page admins and account owners typically posted about political issues including topics like race relations in the US, criticism of US and Israel’s policy on Iran, the Black Lives Matter movement, African-American culture and the Iranian foreign policy.“

This kind of odd mixing of topics — US sanctions policy, say, next to criminal justice reform — can be a little, well, obvious. That’s not to say it can’t, or doesn’t, move any minds, but it’s a bit harder for most people (hopefully) to buy that it’s really just a US Facebook group.

Iranian operatives also use other methods to try to promote their worldview — like posing as journalists or activists to try to steal sensitive information from lawmakers, academics, or contractors, and, in some cases, trying to plant favorable stories in the foreign press.

And Iran definitely has cyber capabilities. But Zoli said, overall, they’re not sophisticated enough to have a truly enormous impact. “They don’t have the capabilities and they haven’t thought through a really multi-pronged strategy. They’re not going after, you know, these ancillary institutional sites to try to have a big impact on political decision-making.”

Iran is probing Trump campaign officials and former administration officials, and this is something they’ve been doing for months. However, according to Microsoft, the Iranians have had limited success in actually gaining access. Iran is most likely trying to gain access to information about Trump officials’ plans for the US, though whether it will use any information (assuming it can access it) and release it publicly is less clear.

Plus, the stakes are a bit higher for Iran. The US’s ability to retaliate could be pretty damaging to Tehran, considering the Trump administration is already engaged in a maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian government.

The bigger picture on political influence

Election interference operations are not unique to the United States, or 2020. The US, like other democracies, is more vulnerable to influence operations because it is an open society with freedom of speech. Foreign actors can more easily enter our ecosystem.

Right now, America’s ecosystem is bitterly divided. A lot of misinformation — from Covid-19 conspiracy theories to QAnon — is homegrown. Which means Russia or China or Iran or anyone else doesn’t have to do much since so much is made in the US.

And let’s be real: Plenty of other countries — even those who’d fall into the US ally camp — are using social media to spread state propaganda, or messaging that favors their foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia-linked accounts have spread pro-Trump messaging on Twitter. During the George Floyd protests, Turkey tried to link Syrian Kurds to antifa. Whether this stuff really works isn’t the point; it doesn’t require a lot of resources, it’s not all that complicated, and right now, getting taken down by Twitter or Facebook is a fairly low cost.

Other modes of election interference — like the hacking of politicians or election infrastructure — are much more sinister threats. But again, if the online disinformation works, Russia or anyone else doesn’t actually have to change any votes. If the specter of a rigged election is there, that may be good enough.

Understanding this is really the best defense for Americans. Zoli told me she sees the ODNI document as educational, not so much for what it tells us about what our adversaries are up to, but as a way to “raise the public’s awareness that these election interferences are common and consistent. And you need to be kind of on guard about them. And you need to harden your approach to them.”

And that has happened post-2016. Social media companies have gotten better at identifying these malign accounts. Campaigns and politicians are more aware that their random emails can become sex-trafficking conspiracies, and they’ve hardened their systems, too.

The Trump administration’s handling of election interference has raised questions, including the decision to stop giving in-person intelligence briefings to Congress and the recent whistleblower complaint. But law enforcement has learned from 2016, too, and has undertaken more robust efforts to protect the US from interference.

There’s still way more to be done. Election security bills have languished in the GOP-controlled Senate. Adversaries are adapting new strategies, which means something may happen that the US doesn’t expect.

If Russia taught the world, or America, anything in 2016, it’s that election interference is not going away. “This is our future,” West, of the Brookings Institution, said. “Because what Russia taught the rest of the world in 2016 was how easy it was to affect American elections.”