U.S. officials are cautioning that China has stepped up election meddling activities to alter the policy climate and counter condemnation of the Communist Party leadership still grappling with the fallout of the coronavirus, which spawned from the country late last year to cripple almost every pocket of the planet.
But how exactly does a government some 7,000 miles away meddle in the democratic process of arguably the world's most advanced country?
"China has been involved in election interference this cycle, both the presidential race and all the way down the ballot," Christopher Whyte, an assistant professor in the homeland security and emergency preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Fox News. "There are direct 'election hacking' efforts that attempt to either directly or indirectly target the vote, by hacking into polling locations, registration databases, etc. Then, there are broader influence efforts that are intended to shape the context of the election itself – the issues, the mindset of voters."
Despite the uproar that rippled down during and after the 2016 election, which highlighted an array or Moscow-led misinformation campaigns, Facebook has again been thrust into the hot seat – albeit armed with a few more resources, personnel, and knowledge – to demur election tampering.
Last month, the tech giant announced that it had taken down hundreds of pages, postings, and accounts written in Chinese, English, and Filipino linked to a Chinese operation – but stopped short of pinning any blame directly on Beijing. Facebook said that the accounts were initially created several years ago and centered on altering perceptions of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, before taking a more U.S political turn last year.
Moreover, some lawmakers this election cycle have also called into question the role non-profit foundations and charities have in being misused as a conduit for peddling and prying. Namely, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., wrote to top government officials last week requesting an investigation into how the CCP officials use nonpartisan American groups to push out Beijing's message and control narratives for those operating in their country.
While the broad consensus among professionals is that Beijing favors a Joe Biden victory given President Donald Trump's rhetoric and trade crackdown against Xi Jinping's government, Whyte underscored that foreign powers ultimately aim to interfere so as to secure national interests.
"The Chinese effort has combined some digital interference with more conventional forms of influence – dark money, message-crafting, and propaganda – to steer discourse and policy away from hot button issues for the CCP," he continued. "This has meant astroturfing – the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization – conversations about Hong Kong so as to avoid visible outbursts of support. It has involved attempting to recast discussion of COVID-19 as Chinese in origins to fit the Party narrative."
U.S. intelligence officials have also warned that the country is capable of far more sophisticated mechanisms than social media – pointing to modalities such as content farms, commentator brigades, and fake media personas to sway public opinion.
Just weeks ago, Microsoft also sounded the alarm with a report highlighting Chinese activity focused on information persuasion and on raw intelligence collection from the Biden campaign and American think tanks. U.S. authorities typically view this as an "opposition research" effort to deepen their anti-Trump objectives.
"Americans think of election interference through the lens of influence, with China being anti-Trump and Russia being pro-Trump, but state-sponsored hackers like China are equally focused on intelligence gathering," Eric Noonan, CEO of CyberSheath, pointed out. "This work includes the harvesting of log-in credentials and coordinated phishing campaigns targeting politicians and politically connected individuals within or adjacent to the U.S."
"Chinese hackers have been active online, but their operations to date appear to be more targeted at intelligence gathering, espionage and suppression of activists and critics, rather than more direct 'election interference' per se," Karim Hijazi, CEO of Prevailion, said. "The Chinese have traditionally been focused on cyber espionage. When it comes to our election, the Chinese are more likely to seek out ways of stealing information in order to better understand the policies, practices, and strategy of the next administration.
Microsoft specifically identified the China-based group Zirconium as being behind the operation, warning the country "already poses a high cyber-espionage threat to the Homeland and Beijing's cyber-attack capabilities will grow."
"We've detected thousands of attacks from Zirconium between March 2020 and September 2020, resulting in nearly 150 compromises. Its targets have included individuals in two categories. First, the group is targeting people closely associated with U.S. presidential campaigns and candidates," Microsoft stated. "The group has also targeted at least one prominent individual formerly associated with the Trump administration. Second, the group is targeting prominent individuals in the international affairs community."
The company noted that such targets have been "academics in international affairs from more than 15 universities, and accounts tied to 18 international affairs and policy organizations, including the Atlantic Council and the Stimson Center."
"Zirconium is using what is referred to as web bugs, or web beacons, tied to a domain they purchased and populated with content. The actor then sends the associated URL in either email text or an attachment to a targeted account," Microsoft explained. "Although the domain itself may not have malicious content, the web bug allows Zirconium to check if a user attempted to access the site. For nation-state actors, this is a simple way to perform reconnaissance on targeted accounts to determine if the account is valid or the user is active."
But according to some analysts, this is hardly the first time that Beijing has moved into the meddling melee.
"Years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Beijing initiated a well-resourced and multi-pronged campaign to positively influence public and political opinion about China and to neutralize potential threats to the regime's carefully crafted international image," noted Craig Singleton, an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). "Such efforts began with relatively benign person-to-person exchanges and the cultivation of discreet relationships with influential U.S. business executives and decision-makers, including up and coming politicians."
He said that in the intervening years, these efforts have expanded to include disinformation operations, coercion, threats of retaliation, clandestine operations, and the weaponization of the West's regulatory, legal, and lobbying loopholes.
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow and China analyst at The Heritage Foundation, also brought to light a more subtle means of maneuvering one's mind.
"It would appear that at least some of the influence being employed is fairly typical -- targeting purchases of goods for states that are potential battlegrounds, or avoiding purchases from those same states," he said. "In the Chinese system, it is difficult to state whether something is explicitly government-sanctioned."
And just as the private sector has poured billions into boosting efforts to counter malign election interference from far away, U.S. government and intelligence agencies have also devoted excess resources to stay ahead of the threat.
In its first-ever "Homeland Threat Assessment" report unveiled publicly last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cautioned of intrusion by China, as well as Russia and Iran. In terms of the former, the warning signals pivoted around Beijing's bid to disseminate falsehoods pertaining to the Chinese handling of the coronavirus, along with fraudulent virus text kits and protective gear.
From the perspective of U.S. Attorney-General William Barr, China has been the most assertive and aggressive in election intrusion.
"I believe it's China," Barr said in a CNN interview last month. "Because I've seen the intelligence, that's what I've concluded."
In August, the U.S. State Department took a bold step in designating the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a Beijing cultural wing set up on various U.S. college campuses, as a Chinese "foreign mission" that plays a pivotal part in the country's "multifaceted propaganda efforts."
David Kennedy, a former hacker for the U.S. National Security Agency and now CEO of TrustedSec, and co-founder and CTO of Binary Defense, stressed that the U.S. has attempted to shore up the security around election systems and that additional funding was approved in December 2019 for $425 million towards election security, but it was hardly enough to redesign the overall systems.
"What is needed is more of a standardized approach to voting systems and one that is designed to withstand attacks from highly skilled and trained adversaries," he conjectured. "China is one of the most alarming adversaries out there because they focus on extreme long-term strategies aimed at bolstering China's influence around the world. They are one of the most advanced cyber warfare capable nations, and they focus on anything they can do to promote China first."
Nonetheless, analysts also emphasize that the impact of election obstruction is challenging to aptly gauge, and understanding its consequence on the vote may never be fully understood or measured.
"The biggest risk we face from the Chinese is information warfare," Hijazi added. "Since their hackers focus on cyber espionage, it is possible they could dump some of this stolen information on the web, in order to try and hurt Donald Trump's campaign."