Chinese influence operations may lack critical element: influence
One of China’s most prolific influence operations has turned out to be spammy, low-quality, and generally results in low engagement, Google’s Threat Analysis Group said after it disrupted more than 50,000 instances of activity from the so-called Dragonbridge network in 2020, according to a report released Thursday.
The report comes as national security officials and policymakers continue to raise concerns about Beijing weaponizing data, specifically via the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. In this case, however, an apparently well-resourced Chinese influence operation hasn’t attracted much of an audience at all, the Google TAG researchers found. “Despite their scale and profuse content production, DRAGONBRIDGE achieved practically no organic engagement from real viewers,” TAG found.
Dragonbridge has previously targeted rare earth mining companies in the U.S., Australia, and Canada. In June 2022, cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which has since been bought by Google, revealed that Dragonbridge masqueraded as local Texans who were critical of an Australian rare earth mining company planning on expanding in the state. The operation also had limited impact, researchers said at the time, but did point to China’s interest in maintaining its rare earth market domination.
Also, during the U.S. midterms last year, Mandiant discovered Dragonbridge operations attempting to discredit the elections and to “sow division both between the U.S. and its allies and within the U.S. political system itself.” However, that operation also appeared to have little impact.
Google researchers found that most Dragonbridge’s YouTube channels had zero subscribers and more than 80% of those videos had less than 100 views. On Blogger, the story was no different, with nearly 95% of the posts receiving 10 or fewer views. However, some of the messaging from Dragonbridge is overtly political and promoting pro-China messaging such as Beijing’s response to COVID-19 in a positive light, levied criticism against pro-democracy protests while praising pro-Chinese government candidates.
Additionally, in 2022, DragonBridge’s content included calls for unification with Taiwan. Following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan in July, Dragonbridge shifted focus to criticize the speaker along with her finances and family. During Pelosi’s visit, a distributed denial-of-service attack shut down the website of Taiwan’s president for 20 minutes.
Dragonbridge also attempted to stroke claims that the U.S. was responsible for “striking tensions and meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries,” according to the TAG researchers. “US-focused narratives portrayed US society and democracy in a negative light, cycling through political and social narratives that evolved with the headlines,” their report said.
Google researchers said that Dragonbridge is willing to experiment and try smaller, high-quality content that replaces machine-generated voices with real human narrations. Additionally, some of Dragonbridge channels included a “news like” talk show, animated political cartoons, and other non-political content like beauty and cooking advice.
“As they evolve over time, [Dragonbridge] coordinated inauthentic activity may eventually attract the attention of real users. For this reason, TAG and Mandiant track [Dragonbridge] closely and Google has taken an aggressive approach to identifying and removing their content,” the report said.