US President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is being leveraged by pro-Chinese actors, who are waging a large propaganda campaign on Facebook, a report has revealed.
Although Facebook will not publicly confirm the accounts are directly linked to the Chinese Communist Party, they follow the same patterns as the tens of thousands of accounts operated by the CCP that were removed by Twitter in June, the report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed.
The reports said the pages, many of which have names such as ‘health first’ and ‘fight the epidemic’, attack Mr Trump and the US government for its response to COVID-19.
“The US’s COVID-19 crisis is treated in this context as a consequence of the political failures of the US,” the report said.
“The pages share common content with other pages in the network, including content relating to political topics such as the US 2020 presidential election, protests and riots in the US, and the failings of the Trump administration.”
Mr Trump’s response to the pandemic, in which more than 200,000 people in the US have died, has become a key election issue.
Lead author Elise Thomas said while the propaganda campaign is targeting the US election, that doesn’t mean it will go away on November 3.
“The outcome of the election will have an impact on US policy towards China. So it’s targeted because it’s a significant issue. But I wouldn’t expect on election day it goes away,” Ms Thomas said.
“It’s about the broader US-China relationship. The election is a significant part of it because it’s a significant thing happening in the US right now.”
Although the election is a major focus point, the campaign drills down on other divisive issues in the US such as wildfires and racial inequality.
“It’s all part of a broader influence effort to make China look good,” Ms Thomas said.
Many of the videos shared by the accounts focus on Mr Trump but stop short of attacking the President on a personal level, Ms Thomas said.
“The attacks directed at Trump are directed at him in his capacity as president, rather than partisan attacks,” she said.
“By making him look clownish, foolish and heartless, that makes China look better.”
The actors behind the accounts are resourceful and can generate a high volume of content, including videos.
They can replace accounts quickly when they are taken down.
Right now much of the content is poorly produced, leaving Ms Thomas and other researchers to think it’s being outsourced to companies that do not fully understand western social media platforms.
“They’ve got these terrible robotic auto-translate voices and I think there’s a lot of confusion about who it’s targeted at,” she said.
“They have subtitles in English and Chinese and it comes off clunky.”
But importantly, the researchers noticed a gradual increase in quality, suggesting that the actors were ‘‘getting better’’ at designing and sharing the propaganda.
“It’s only the last couple of years that we have seen the potential Chinese state-affiliated activities on Facebook, so you would expect there’s a learning curve.”