The social media campaign was small but targeted all sides of the debate. Officials said Beijing had not decided whether to wade more directly in the American presidential race.
Facebook has detected limited Chinese operations intended to both help and hurt President Donald Trump's reelection chances, the company announced Tuesday, the first public disclosure of Chinese efforts to influence the presidential election in November.
The Chinese activity, while modest and not directly attributed to the government in Beijing, could undercut Trump's repeated contention that China is intervening in the election to support former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. While the intelligence community has assessed that China opposes Trump's reelection, officials said this week that the actions on Facebook so far were small and Beijing had not yet decided to mount a large-scale influence operation comparable to Russian efforts in 2016 and this year.
Facebook identified a range of fake accounts pushing information about American and Philippine politics and Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Though much of the activity outlined by China was centered on the Philippines, some was more directly relevant to American politics.
Facebook said it was removing the accounts for violating its policy against "inauthentic behavior." The activity was coordinated and originated in China, though Chinese officials, including the ambassador to the United States, have denied allegations they are seeking to influence the vote in November.
Facebook security first detected the new activity and shared the information with US government officials. US technology companies as well as intelligence agencies have shown more willingness this year to release information about foreign influence operations, having been criticized by lawmakers for being too cautious in 2016.
While the Chinese-created network gained more than 133,000 followers, Facebook said it had received little attention in the United States, with fewer than 3,000 US-based accounts following it. The group posted information both for and against Trump and Biden.
"They were focused on driving division," said Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security at Facebook. "The engagement with the US was both nascent and limited. It was both supportive and critical of the major political candidates in the US."
Facebook does not release the number of page views, or impressions, that various posts receive. However, based on how the site works, users would have been unlikely to see a post unless they followed the Chinese group or its pages.
Gleicher said that Facebook had detected no other Chinese activity on its platform.
"With the US, the goal appeared to be audience-building," said Ben Nimmo, whose firm, Graphika, worked with Facebook to release a report about the Chinese campaign. Nimmo said they had named the new Chinese operation Naval Gazing because of its largely maritime focus.
The group became active in late 2016, first posting about Chinese military activity, according to Graphika's report. In 2018, the campaign broadened its topics to the South China Sea, posting details about US ship movements and Chinese military achievements. In recent years, the US Navy has conducted so-called freedom of navigation operations, devised to challenge China's territorial claims over its artificial islands.
The more US politics-focused activity did not begin until April 2019, when the group created a Facebook page in favour of the former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The page was unsuccessful and followed by only two or three people.
In recent months, the group created Facebook fan pages for both Trump and Biden and posted content that was focused on drawing attention, rather than advocating on behalf of a particular candidate, Nimmo said.
An assessment issued last month by US intelligence agencies found that China favoured Biden but had not yet taken significant steps to try to influence the national election, focusing its efforts on state and local politicians. Intelligence officials cautioned that the Facebook findings, representing activities on one platform by a small group, should be judged carefully.
US intelligence agencies stand by their assessment that China, finding Trump mercurial and unpredictable, favours his defeat.
Despite Beijing's distaste for Trump and his trade war, the Chinese government's views on Biden are complicated. Biden has vowed a harder line on China's oppression of ethnic minorities and moves to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy. And Chinese leaders believe Biden is more likely to be able to rally other nations to pressure China.
Current and former officials have said that to an extent, China is copying the Russian interference playbook from 2016. And like Russia in the last election, even though China has a preference for Biden, it is trying to obscure its efforts by conducting operations to sow division and chaos by playing all sides of an issue.
US officials see the activity on Facebook as relatively minor. China, according to two US officials, has not yet decided whether to try to influence the election in November in any substantial way.
Microsoft has also reported observing Chinese activity aimed at gathering information about the presidential campaign. Last week, the company reported efforts by China to hack into Biden's campaign and American think tanks. US intelligence officials have said that China may have been looking for opposition research critical of Trump, and the targeting of Biden's campaign does not undermine the government's assessment that China opposes Trump.
The company also briefed Congress before its announcement Tuesday.
The network discovered by Facebook included 155 accounts, 11 pages, nine groups and six Instagram accounts. Posting in Chinese and English, the group largely pushed stories of interest to overseas Filipino workers, as well as content that was supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign for reelection in the Philippines.
Facebook also announced the removal of a coordinated campaign operating on behalf of a government entity in the Philippines. That campaign, which included 57 Facebook accounts, 31 pages and 20 Instagram accounts, was followed by about 276,000 people, largely in the Philippines.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police," Facebook wrote in its report. The activity was brought to their attention by civil society groups and Rappler, an independent news organization in the Philippines that the Duterte government has targeted.
Written by: Adam Goldman, Sheera Frenkel and Julian E. Barnes
Photographs by: Jim Wilson
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES