China, Russia, and Iran have seized on the George Floyd killing to promote stories hostile to the United States in their state-owned media, but their efforts stopped short of the type of covert online influence operation attributed to Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a recent analysis.
Graphika, which used artificial intelligence to analyze large volumes of social media, said in its briefing report that the three countries are primarily “furthering their existing narratives, rather than stoking American divisions.”
“All three countries used their substantial online editorial presences to criticize the Floyd killing, the police reaction to protests, and President Donald Trump,” said NBC News.
Last Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, drew attention to the issue of foreign social media activity when he tweeted:
“Tonight seeing VERY heavy social media activity on #protests & counter reactions from social media accounts linked to at least 3 foreign adversaries. They didn’t create these divisions. But they are actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles.”
National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said that “foreign powers were trying to exploit the fraught state of U.S. race relations and protests over George Floyd’s death,” reported Politico.
In China, Graphika said that reaction seemed to be linked to resentment over how the U.S. reacted to China’s strengthening of security laws in Hong Kong. “The hypocritical US political elites have given full play to double standards,” the Global Times proclaimed as it contrasted the U.S. George Floyd protests and Hong Kong protests.
According to Politico, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently responded to the U.S. State Department’s concerns over Hong Kong by tweeting “I can’t breathe.”
The Graphika report said, “It should be noted that the latest known pro-Chinese government messaging information operations on social media have been marked by their clumsy and spammy approach; such covert operations would be unlikely to play a substantial role in stoking the American protests on the ground.”
When it came to Iranian media, Graphika said the response was similar: “it took U.S. criticisms of Iranian crackdowns on demonstrations and turned them on the United States.”
The approach was “troll-like,” said Graphika. Many tweets took existing screenshots of genuine U.S. statements about protests in Iran and edited or annotated them to criticize the U.S. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was among those who sent out such tweets.
“In a similar vein of reflecting American words back at the White House, the Iranian Foreign Ministry posted a photo of the protests alongside a quote from Martin Luther King’s immortal ‘I have a dream’ speech.”
In Russian media, some of the coverage also focused on American “hypocrisy.” The portrayal of President Trump was mixed, with some articles defending his approach and others condemning him as a “racist.”
Graphika said, “Russian covert information operations have a long history of targeting African-American grievances. The original Internet Research Agency operation of 2014-2017 focused heavily on the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Graphika’s analysis concluded, “As yet, there is no evidence to support the claim of covert Russian interference in the protests. It is important that such claims not be made or amplified unless there is evidence to support them, as they can be used to falsely discredit and de-legitimize genuine activists.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.