Microsoft Research Says Chinese Interference Occurring on Facebook and X/Twitter

As the media hysteria over Chinese foreign interference on TikTok continues, that same interference has been detected on other platforms.

The debate is continuing over whether it is the right call for the US to ban TikTok. As things stand now, with all the concerns I heard about banning TikTok, non of those concerns appear to either justify a ban or are solid arguments that banning TikTok is an effective solution to these “concerns”.

The two major “concerns” were Chinese foreign interference and privacy. While the latter might be a bit more difficult to prove, the former would be easily traceable. Yet, when US intelligence was asked to provide evidence that something nefarious was going on, those same US intelligence often cited by media outlets came up empty-handed and admitted that their concerns were purely hypothetical. I mean, come on, if you are claiming that there’s this massive campaign by China to use TikTok as a tool for foreign interference, this would not be difficult to prove. Yet, somehow, evidence to confirm these conspiracy theories continues to remain elusive.

Yet, that didn’t stop US President, Joe Biden, along with members of Congress and the Senate, from passing an unconstitutional TikTok ban law anyway. Some of those who pushed for a ban of TikTok had significant financial conflicts of interest thanks to them owning shares in TikTok rivals – rivals who would stand to benefit greatly from a TikTok ban. While media outlets speculated that TikTok was looking into selling its assets, TikTok denied those rumours and said that it was going to be challenging this law in court.

So much about this debate circles back to this question: what would a TikTok ban even solve? Every time I see developments, the answer seemingly always comes to “nothing”. Still, if you want any further evidence of that, well, recent Microsoft research appears to be piling on evidence of how ineffective a TikTok ban might truly be. From NPR:

Researchers at Microsoft as well as the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue have identified accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, posing as Donald Trump supporters, attacking President Biden, and seizing on hot-button topics such as immigration. Microsoft said some accounts even seemed to be polling American voters on what issues divided them most.

“Joe Biden ‘belongs in a nursing home’ not the White House,” one account posted — but the post also included Mandarin characters, apparently due to an incorrect browser setting, ISD said.

Other China-linked accounts used AI-generated images to spread a baseless conspiracy theory that the U.S. government deliberately set last year’s Maui wildfires to test a military “weather weapon,” Microsoft said.

Microsoft and ISD both linked the posts they identified to Spamouflage, a long-running Chinese network of fake accounts across social networks including Facebook, X and TikTok. Spamouflage accounts have previously pushed attacks on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, praised China’s COVID-19 response, and posted videos with AI-generated news anchors promoting Chinese leadership.

Last year, Facebook owner Meta said Spamouflage is the largest covert influence operation it’s ever disrupted — and linked it to Chinese law enforcement. Despite their breadth, however, these efforts have failed to gain many followers or have significant impact.

“The vast scale of Spamouflage has previously been offset by its ineffectual tactics and uncompelling content; if the operators find a strategy which works, potentially augmented by generative AI, it could start to become a real problem,” wrote Elise Thomas, ISD senior analyst.

Foreign interference on Facebook is nothing new. This has been widely known since at least 2018 when we saw the massive Cambridge Analytica scandal which was frequently cited as a contributing factor for getting a narcissistic egomaniac elected president and successfully making Brexit happen. Yet, even though there was a very tangible political effect, there was never a serious debate about banning Facebook.

As for X/Twitter, Donald Trump was using that platform for years to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and the previous election. This was a part of the lead up to a notorious speech which led to the January 6 terrorist attack. It was well documented that X/Twitter, at the time, was bending every rule possible to ensure that Trump stayed on Twitter and it wasn’t until shortly after January 6 that X/Twitter finally took action and banned Trump.

What’s more, the surveillance capitalism that helps keep both platforms afloat financially has been well documented. Yet, despite all of this, there isn’t any serious debate about banning X/Twitter or Facebook over either national security or privacy reasons. Yet, somehow, TikTok is the one getting banned with substantially less evidence? It’s freaking bizarre.

Of course, another angle in all of this is that if we are banning TikTok because of Chinese foreign interference, is that really going to solve much considering they are already using other platforms? The best case scenario is that the Chinese government is simply going to double down on other platforms afterwards, putting us straight back to square one. In the process, we have ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of content creators in the process for what amounts to no real reason.

All of this really speaks to how badly the US needs to go back to the drawing board on all of this. What are your concerns about social media? If it’s foreign interference or privacy, then chances are, you need an across the board solution rather than picking on one specific platform. It’s no secret that the US needs an effective federal level privacy law that sets the rules for how every web service needs to handle people’s personal information. That alone would be infinitely more effective than this absurd effort to ban TikTok.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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