China Uses Hawaii Fires in 'Disinformation Wars'

Chinese accounts spread conspiracy about the testing of a US 'weather weapon'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 17, 2023 9:30 AM CDT
China Uses Hawaii Fires in 'Disinformation Wars'
A man walks through wildfire wreckage Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The deadly fires across Maui last month were triggered by a secret "weather weapon" tested by the US government on its own citizens—or so suspected Chinese operatives want you to believe. Researchers from Microsoft and other organizations have described an organized disinformation campaign out of China that aims to sow discord in the US ahead of the 2024 presidential election, the New York Times reports. Russia, accused of meddling in the 2016 election with similar campaigns, also made "political use of the Maui fires," with social media posts suggesting US funds sent to Ukraine would be better used at home, the Times reports, noting the combined efforts of the two countries "suggest a new phase of the disinformation wars is about to begin, one bolstered by the use of AI tools."

China appears to have taken a page from Russia's book, building a network of accounts across social media platforms—Facebook, X, YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Medium among them—to be used in future information operations, Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft's Threat Analysis Center, tells the Times. "We don't have direct evidence of coordination between China and Russia in these campaigns, but we're certainly finding alignment and a sort of synchronization," said William Marcellino of the RAND Corporation, which also investigated. In regard to China, "this is going into a new direction, which is sort of amplifying conspiracy theories that are not directly related to some of their interests, like Taiwan," added Brian Liston, a researcher at cybersecurity company Recorded Future.

NewsGuard, a company that tracks disinformation, said the campaign is the most expansive Chinese operation it has uncovered, per Gizmodo. Some of the posts included images crafted by generative artificial intelligence, which have been found to draw "higher levels of engagement from authentic social media users," Microsoft said in its report, per Axios. However, the posts garnered few interactions, reports Gizmodo, which spoke to reps from YouTube and Meta. It remains to be seen how Chinese accounts might be used closer to the election. But US intelligence officials believe China favors former President Trump over President Biden, partly because Trump has called for pulling US troops out of Japan and South Korea. (More disinformation stories.)

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