The recent unmasking of a Chinese disinformation campaign designed to influence the 2024 U.S. presidential election has brought renewed attention to foreign meddling in our democratic process — specifically Russian and Chinese efforts — as well as our failure to safeguard against such interference.  

It also demands swift, resolute action by the Biden administration, making it clear to China, Russia and others, that this sort of malign activity will not be tolerated.  

Following the 2016 election, much of the focus on foreign election interference has been on Russia, but by myopically focusing on Moscow, it appears that the United States ignored the rising threat also posed by China.  

As reported in the New York Times, a Chinese influence operation called “Spamouflage” is working to not only impact our elections — “an echo of Russia’s influence campaign before the 2016 election” — but also to “breed disenchantment among voters by maligning the United States as rife with urban decay, homelessness, fentanyl abuse, gun violence and crumbling infrastructure.” 

While it does not currently appear that China and Russia colluded in either Spamouflage or other malicious campaigns, it is clear that both countries are undertaking efforts to weaken not only President Biden directly but also American democracy as a whole. 

Most alarming is that Spamouflage appears to be linked to the Chinese government, making this a state-sanctioned effort to undermine our democracy.  

Last April, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 44 Chinese citizens — 40 members of the Ministry of Public Security, a Chinese government ministry tasked with law enforcement and counterintelligence, and four members of China’s cybersecurity administration — for their role in an influence operation targeting Americans and Chinese dissidents inside the U.S.  

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, it appears highly likely that Spamouflage is the campaign described in that indictment.  

Critically, if it is confirmed that Beijing has greenlit these attacks, President Biden must make it clear — to China and Russia — that these infringements on our election integrity are unacceptable and must stop, or else economic sanctions on China will be tightened as a first step.  

As the Institute for Strategic Dialogue notes, the themes promoted by Spamouflage fit into a handful of specific narratives: the 2024 election will be divisive and damaging for the U.S., negative Biden narratives, ambiguous Trump narratives, the age of both candidates and, to a smaller extent, undermining the integrity of our elections as a whole.  

For example, in a series of posts on X, accounts linked to China showed AI-generated images of Trump and Biden fighting with lightsabers with the caption, “U.S. INFIGHTING INTENSIFIES” and “AMERICA GOES BACK 150 YEARS.” A similar picture was captioned, “THE COLLAPSE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY.”   

To that point, while the Times notes that China’s operation did not have any “obviously partisan leanings” it is clear that when not targeting the foundations of our democracy, Spamouflage takes a more confrontational approach to Biden than to Trump. 

Indeed, multiple posts portrayed Biden as a drug user and referenced his son Hunter’s legal problems. Also, as the Insitute for Strategic Dialogue points out, while both candidates’ ages were described negatively, the majority of these attacks were aimed at Biden.  

Conversely, when discussing Trump, the Times cites posts depicting Trump’s “status as an antihero is making him unstoppable” — a relatively more positive picture of Trump than Biden. 

Further, the Insitute for Strategic Dialogue notes that China’s social media trolls also highlighted divisive policy issues such as abortion and crime, although the latter is not framed as a partisan issue, but rather as a commentary on the decay of American society and power. 

What has made Spamouflage so hard to detect — and so troubling — is that operatives have begun impersonating far-right social media personalities — a tactic the Institute for Strategic Dialogue refers to as “MAGAflage” — stoking divisions around hot-button social issues from a right-wing perspective. This has had considerable success, as these MAGAflage accounts have formed genuine connections with Trump voters and far-right celebrities such as Alex Jones. 

This is a departure from previous Russian campaigns. As Elise Thomas, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told the Times, she’s, “never seen anything along those lines at all before” and believes that the new approach is indicative of a more sophisticated approach, as it makes the Chinese accounts seem more authentic, and perhaps more effective. 

Quite simply, misinformation campaigns — whether Russian or Chinese — can drastically alter the presidential election outcome. But even if there is no quantifiable impact on the election, they will surely deepen already intense social, political and cultural divisions in our country.  

In that same vein, it is clear that both Russia and China, two extremely hostile governments, feel that they are free to undermine our democracy to their benefit.  

Regardless of who wins the next election, or whichever candidate one prefers, one thing Americans should agree on is that no foreign government should be able to interfere in our elections, which makes combating this long-running Chinese operation — and any future ones — that much more important.  

Positively, the Biden administration has begun highlighting and condemning Chinese influence operations, particularly those related to silencing foreign critics and spreading disinformation, but more must be done.  

Given that the principal enemies of the United States — China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea — are all relatively closed societies with limited to no actual democracy, let alone the social media networks used in these campaigns, the U.S. is forced to fight this battle with one hand tied behind its back. But that does not excuse President Biden nor Donald Trump from taking a hardline stance on this issue.  

It is clear that the U.S. must work with the private sector to root out these threats and expose them, so American voters can be sure what they see is authentic and not part of a hostile influence campaign.  

Moreover, we must do more to address the ability of these foreign campaigns to reach a substantial number of Americans. By making more people aware of these efforts coming out of Beijing and Moscow, we limit their ability to sway undecided voters and change the discourse in our country.  

Put another way, while our open economy and democratic system make the U.S. more vulnerable than our enemies to these kinds of operations, we can’t ignore these threats. With bipartisan cooperation, legislation to address security gaps and collaboration with the private sector, our democratic system can survive these attacks. 

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant and the founder and partner at Schoen Cooperman Research. He served as an adviser to President Clinton and the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Saul Mangel is a senior strategist at Schoen Cooperman Research. 

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