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article imageQ&A: Former NSA Chinese espionage expert details cyber-threats Special

By Tim Sandle     Oct 13, 2019 in Technology
Charity Wright, former NSA Chinese espionage expert, and current threat researcher with global threat intelligence firm, IntSights, has released a new analysis on Chinese influencer campaigns. Charity shares with Digital Journal the main findings.
Charity Wright (formerly with the U.S. National Security Agency and now working for IntSights) has analyzed Chinese influencer campaigns in the report 'PSYOPS: How States Weaponize Social Media to Disrupt Global Politics'.
The analysis includes a study of how are governments around the world using social media to influence politics, elections, and how people view them and how China able to use social media to sway public opinion about what is happening in Hong Kong. Chartiy provides an expert oversight for Digital Journal.
Digital Journal: How influential is social media in general?
Charity Wright: A Pew Research study revealed that 62 percent of people get their news from social media. The majority of them are under 50 years old. The young generation of children right now spend most of their time on social media, watching YouTubers who have significant influence over their mindset, beliefs, and behavior. People believe what they read on the internet because it is more time consuming and challenging to question what they read.
DJ: How important is social media becoming for governments?
Wright: Social media has become one of the most valuable tools to influence populations and constituents. People are less suspicious of corruption and political influence in this medium than in others like print media and TV.
DJ: How did you compile the ‘PSYOPS: How States Weaponize Social Media to Disrupt Global Politics’ report?
Wright: The PsyOps report was a result of observing trends in social media disinformation campaigns. With the 2020 US General Election coming up, we have been exploring how social media has been weaponized in the by China and Russia, and what we need to look for going forward. Our findings reveal that Russia and China use the same weapon, but in very different ways and for different objectives. Each has its own tactics, methods, and reasons.
DJ: How are governments around the world using social media to influence politics, elections, and how people view them?
Wright: By studying the target culture and language, governments are effectively changing the way people think, believe, and behave. Russia used social media as a delivery medium for divisive issues such as Black Lives Matter movement, taking a knee during the national anthem, voting for certain candidates, police brutality, and immigration issues (building a wall). By targeting sensitive topics that divide the US between the right and left, they effectively influenced the outcome of the presidential election and continue to influence how Americans think about these topics. China is using social media to influence foreigners and citizens to sympathize with the Chinese government and oppose the Hong Kong protesters.
DJ: What is the difference between how China and Russia conduct social media/ misinformation campaigns?
Wright: China uses social media in both Western and domestic platforms to save face and influence how people view the Chinese Communist Party and political dissidents. Russia uses social media as a weapon to divide Americans on sensitive political and cultural issues. By inciting civil disagreement, they are effectively dividing Americans and breaking down democratic processes in the United States. This form of division also distracts Americans from other important things happening around the world, like cyber attacks on critical US infrastructure.
DJ: Do other countries, like the U.S., engage in such activities?
Wright: Recently, the FBI used their official Facebook account to recruit Russians in the Washington DC area to join the FBI. It is unclear if they are recruiting US citizens with Russian language skills, or if they are attempting to turn Russian spies to work for the FBI. However, this is one recent example of a US government entity leveraging social media to achieve its objectives. Large-scale, foreign social media influence campaigns have not been observed. However, the US military has been using psychological operations (PSYOPS) during wartime since World War I.
DJ: How are misinformation campaigns different from American psychological operations of the past?
Wright: Misinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false information to sway opinion. This is different from American PSYOPS used during wartime, of which the objective is to "win the hearts and minds" of the subjects in a country where US troops will be operating. The ultimate goal of US troops is to share the mission with the people in an effort to earn their trust and cooperation while fighting a common enemy.
DJ: How is China able to use social media to sway public opinion about what is happening in Hong Kong?
Wright: China uses native social media and state-run media platforms to influence the Chinese population in favor of the Communist party and against political dissidents, like the protesters in Hong Kong. In June 2019, the Chinese government launched a large-scale psychological operation to alter Western perception of the Hong Kong protests and to save face in front of the world. Utilizing an expansive network of state-run media outlets, as well as open source social media platforms, the Chinese misinformation apparatus managed to post over 3.6 million tweets, with thousands of military and government contract operators at work.
Most of the posts were in Chinese and English, targeting popular Western social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, which are both banned within China. The content included misinformation, minimizing the impact of the protests and portraying the protesters as “terrorists” manipulated by Western powers and “radical forces”.
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