China-linked influence campaign targeting U.S. midterms, security firm says

Washington — A group of Chinese-linked cyber criminals known as “Dragonbridge” has expanded influence operations aimed at discrediting and undermining the U.S. political system, including explicit attempts to discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 midterm elections, according to a new report by cybersecurity firm Mandiant.

Mandiant assessed “with high confidence” that Dragonbridge is operating in support of the political interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). According to new research and monitoring by the cybersecurity firm, the Chinese-aligned disinformation campaign has “aggressively target[ed] the United States by seeking to sow division both between the U.S. and its allies and within the U.S. political system itself.”

In September 2022, a Dragonbridge account posted an English-language video that sought to discourage Americans from voting in the upcoming elections and questioned the merits of U.S. government institutions in general. According to Mandiant, the video claimed that “the solution to America’s ills is not to vote for someone,” but rather to “root out this ineffective and incapacitated system.”

The video, which contained images from the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, also aimed to sow doubts about the productivity of the U.S. Congress and its legislative process in influencing Americans’ lives. The video went on to question the utility of bills that become laws. 

“DRAGONBRIDGE posted content asserting that political infighting, partisanship, polarization, and division had become fundamental aspects of American democracy,” the report by Mandiant found. “The campaign also pointed to frequent mentions of ‘civil war’ on social media and incidents of politically motivated violence, including confrontations between individuals supporting opposing parties and acts against the FBI, as evidence of the deterioration of the political process and its impending demise.” 

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In addition to its attempts to discredit American democracy, Dragonbridge has promoted content falsely claiming that notorious Chinese-linked threat group APT 41 is a U.S. government-backed actor and alleged that the U.S. was behind Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline explosions. It remains unclear who was responsible for gas leaks that occurred in late September along the pipeline.

“Since 2019, this influence campaign has been pretty consistent in trying to promote these kinds of narratives, but what has changed is they’ve scaled their operation,” said Sandra Joyce, head of global intelligence at Mandiant. Dragonbridge currently operates in more than 10 languages across more than 30 social media platforms, according to Joyce.

Since they first began tracking Dragonbridge’s foreign influence campaign in 2019, researchers from Mandiant have identified an expanded social media footprint promoting its content and containing “indicators of inauthenticity and coordination.” According to Mandiant, new accounts frequently rely on stock photography for profile pictures and cluster creation dates, “suggesting possible batch creation.” Usernames frequently feature English-language names followed by strings of seemingly random numbers, with many accounts also posting near-identical content.

Still, Mandiant researchers found Dragonbridge’s campaign “continues to fail to garner significant engagement by seemingly real individuals” with its overall effectiveness fraught by “poor execution.”

“For [Dragonbridge], it’s about getting to a very broad user base, although they’ve not been very effective,” said Joyce, later adding, “What we’re seeing is a group that is getting more aggressive in their tactics, trying to scale up this operation, around the world.”

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On Monday, the Department of Justice unsealed charges in three separate cases accusing more than a dozen defendants – 10 of them Chinese officials — of scheming to repatriate critics of the Chinese government, obtain secret information about a U.S. investigation into a Chinese telecom firm and recruit spies to act as agents of China within the United States. 

“As these cases demonstrate, the government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights. They did not succeed,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

“Beijing may think our adherence to the rule of law is a weakness, but they’re wrong,” FBI Director Christopher Wray added. “Our democratic and legal processes arm us with weapons that China does not have.”

Ahead of Election Day, Joyce urged Americans to remain attentive in their online consumption. “We need to be very vigilant as a community about the type of information that’s coming at us,” Joyce said. “One of the best ways to combat information operations is to spotlight it, and let people understand that what they’re seeing is an attempt by a foreign actor to influence what they think and feel. In that way, the answer is critical thinking.”

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