Facebook removed a network of Chinese pages and accounts on Tuesday that were attempting to influence the U.S. presidential election, in the first takedown of its kind. But just like previous Chinese campaigns, this one failed miserably.
The complete failure of the China-based campaign comes despite the Trump administration’s assertion earlier this month that disinformation campaigns from Beijing posed the biggest threat to the integrity of November’s elections.
Faceobok announced Tuesday that it had removed 10 Chinese accounts and five pages that were targeting U.S. politics. It’s the first time Facebook has removed accounts originating in China for interfering in U.S. politics.
The removal was part of a broader takedown of over 150 accounts for violating the company’s policy against foreign or government interference that is “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.”
The U.S.-focused pages and accounts were nonpartisan, with some supporting President Trump and others supporting his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. One page even supported Pete Buttigieg’s effort to secure the Democratic nomination last year.
The accounts created as part of the U.S. operation posed as Americans, using a combination of pictures stolen from other profiles and artificially generated images — an increasingly popular tactic in influence operations.
Parts of the wider campaign were moderately successful in building an audience. Two pages that focused on the Philippines attracted around 57,000 and 40,000 followers, respectively.
But the U.S.-focused pages had barely a fraction of that engagement, and one, focused on criticizing Donald Trump, had no followers at all. The one dedicated to Buttigieg had only two followers — both of them fake accounts run by the operation.
The only sliver of success in the U.S. operation was a gain of 1,500 followers on the “Biden Harris 2020” page.
“It is possible that the intention was to further polarize America’s political landscape by affirming each side’s view of the other, but in that case, it is strange that the operation paid no attention to more progressive groups and candidates, such as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” Graphika, a social media monitoring group, said in a report analyzing the campaign.
The tactics deployed in this campaign, which included fake accounts pretending to be American conservatives, echo those deployed in 2016 by Russia. While the tactics were hugely successful four years ago, the social networks have become much more sophisticated at tracking these rudimentary campaigns.
Last month Graphika detailed another Chinese-based campaign, dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon,” which tried to undermine Trump's reelection bid. But the monthslong campaign was clumsy and failed to attract any engagement from any real people.
And yet the Trump administration continues to play up the threat posed by China in this area: Earlier this month, one Trump administration official claimed that Beijing, not Moscow, posed the biggest threat to the 2020 election.
China has “the most massive program to influence the United States politically,” Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters at a briefing, adding that “we know the Chinese have taken the most active role.” O’Brien failed to provide any details of the campaigns he was referring to.
Then, last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the threat coming from Russia, and not China, ahead of the election.
“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020,” Wray told Congress, in comments that reportedly could see Trump replace him as head of the agency.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed Russia’s influence operations, especially during the 2016 elections, and instead tried to focus on campaigns from China, claiming in 2018 that Beijing was attempting to interfere in the midterms.