Suspected Chinese agents have employed artificial intelligence-generated graphics to impersonate American voters online in an attempt to disseminate disinformation and spark debate on controversial political issues as the 2024 US election near, Microsoft analysts said Thursday.
In the last nine months, the agents have shared striking AI-created photographs of the Statue of Liberty and the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, as part of a campaign that Microsoft describes as “denigrating U.S. political figures and symbols.”
According to Microsoft, the purported Chinese influence network uploaded the AI-generated photographs through a succession of profiles on “Western” social media platforms. The photographs were phony and manufactured by a computer, but real individuals, whether intentionally or unintentionally, spread them by reposting them on social media, according to Microsoft.
The social media profiles were “affiliated” with the Chinese Communist Party, according to Microsoft.
The growing threat of adversaries using artificial intelligence to sow disinformation among US voters is a major concern for election officials as they prepare for a potentially acrimonious rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in 2024.
Foreign operations, it is feared, will magnify an already ripe domestic information environment. According to a July poll, 69% of Republicans and Republican-leaners still believe Biden’s 2020 victory was not legitimate.
“We can expect China to continue to hone this technology over time and improve its accuracy, though it remains to be seen how and when it will deploy it at scale,” said Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center, in a blog post.
Microsoft Reveals AI-Generated Images Outperform Authentic Content in Social Media Engagement
According to Microsoft, the AI-created images have “drawn higher levels of engagement from authentic social media users” than some earlier posts by the network of purported Chinese accounts, although the company did not disclose particular numbers.
“In recent years, some Western media and think tanks have accused China of using artificial intelligence to create fake social media accounts to spread so-called ‘pro-China’ information,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, told CNN in an email. “Such remarks are rife with prejudice and malicious speculation about China, which China strongly condemns.”
Following the 2016 US presidential election, when Russian agents used Facebook and Twitter to try to magnify voter differences, US officials warned that China or other foreign powers could follow suit.
According to senior FBI sources, Russian and Chinese government-affiliated operatives and groups spread misinformation regarding the integrity of American elections ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
In recent months, further evidence of Chinese influence operations targeted at fostering strife in the United States has emerged.
According to researchers from security firm Mandiant, pro-Beijing agents paid a handful of naive Americans to protest racial inequity and a US ban on commodities made in the Chinese region of Xinjiang in July.
Meanwhile, Facebook parent company Meta announced last month that it had shut down the largest known “cross-platform covert influence operation” it had ever encountered, involving thousands of China-based social media profiles targeting audiences in the United States, Taiwan, and elsewhere. The behavior was linked to people “associated with Chinese law enforcement,” although the influence effort generated little engagement from real social media users, according to Meta investigators.