Campus protests give Russia, China and Iran fuel to exploit American division

Campus protests give Russia, China and Iran fuel to exploit American division

An article from a fake online media outlet that Meta linked to Russia’s information operations attributed the clashes taking place on U.S. college campuses to the failures of the Biden administration. A newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party said the police crackdown exposed “double standards and hypocrisy” in the United States when it comes to free speech.

On X, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani published a cartoon of police arresting a young protester dressed as the Statue of Liberty. “The imprisonment of #freedom in the United States,” he wrote.

As protests against the Gaza war spread across the United States, Russia, China and Iran are using them to score geopolitical points abroad and stoke tensions at home, according to researchers who identified countries’ overt and covert efforts. to amplify the protests since their beginning.

There is little evidence – at least so far – that countries have provided material or organizational support for the protests, such as Russia unknowingly recruited Black Lives Matter protesters to organize rallies ahead of the election presidential elections of 2016 and 2020.

Nonetheless, the campaigns presented the United States as a country plagued by social and political unrest. In the past two weeks alone, state media in Russia, China and Iran have published nearly 400 English-language articles about the protests, according to NewsGuard, an organization that tracks online misinformation. Countries have also unleashed a wave of content through inauthentic accounts or bots on social media platforms like X and Telegram or websites created, in Russia’s case, to mimic Western news agencies.

“This is a wound that our adversaries are going to try to pour salt on because they can,” said Darren Linvill, director of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University, who identified campaigns in all three country. “The more we fight among ourselves, the easier their lives are and the more they can get by.”

Researchers worry that some foreign influence operations are also turning their attention to the November presidential election, seeking to stoke partisan tensions, denigrate democracy and promote isolationism. The three adversaries have unleashed a deluge of propaganda and disinformation since the Gaza war began in October, seeking to weaken Israel and, as its main ally, the United States, while expressing support for Hamas or the Palestinians. in general.

The campus protests, which have gained momentum in recent weeks, have allowed them to redirect their propaganda to focus on the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel, arguing that it has undermined its international reputation while not reflecting popular sentiment in the country.

“The Biden administration’s policies are complicating the situation inside the country,” says TruthGate, one of the few websites. what Meta said last year were created by a Russian information operation known as Doppelgänger to spread propaganda under the guise of an American media outlet, it said Wednesday. “In their rush to help our controversial allies, they completely forgot about domestic affairs. Today, the situation seems irreparable.

The influence efforts were followed by researchers from Clemson and NewsGuard, as well as the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Recorded Future, a threat intelligence company .

A covert Chinese influence campaign known as Spamouflage, which was first linked to a branch of the Ministry of Public Security in 2019, has also turned its attention to the protests. Some articles on Similar language – like “how can there be such brutal police officers in the world” and “expulsion, arrest, suppression!” — echoed in several stories identified by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research organization focused on national security.

Max Lesser, the foundation’s senior analyst, described the “high volume” of content related to the protests as “a clear example of a foreign adversary actively exploiting an ongoing domestic crisis.”

Many accounts linked to Spamouflage share similar content. One on His profile picture was an image of Winter, the South Korean pop singer. It listed its location as the United States, but it was usually published during the day in Asia, while its content frequently contained grammatical errors.

Another account on the camps” in New York. the city’s universities.

However, researchers did not detect any direct attempts to organize protests or provoke violence. Instead, the focus has been on highlighting the divisions that the war in Gaza has exposed in American public opinion – and the potential effect that has on government policy.

Brian Liston, an analyst at Recorded Future, said that in the case of Russia, the campaign was “trying to inflame tensions on both sides of the protest argument,” by alternately praising the protesters and denouncing them as anti-Semites.

In many cases, campaigns only amplify the sentiments expressed by protesters and their supporters. Chen Weihua, the outspoken editor and columnist of China Daily, the official English-language state newspaper, recently reposted posts on X from people like Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, and Cynthia Nixon, the actress of “Sex in the”. City.”

For China, scenes of American police in riot gear arresting young protesters have particular resonance because of the harsh criticism leveled at the communist government by the United States and other democracies when its security forces clashed with protesters in Hong Kong for months in 2019 over the rollback of political freedoms that the government had promised to preserve in the former British colony.

“When Hong Kong students destroyed schools, blocked roads, and threw gasoline bombs, the United States called on the Hong Kong government to exercise restraint and not disrupt reasonable protests,” said an account linked to Spamouflage. “Faced with American students, the police act directly and arrest them! »

Melanie Smith, research director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research organization that studies disinformation, polarization and extremism online, said China’s efforts have become significantly more aggressive toward the Biden administration .

His organization and others have already identified a nascent effort to undermine President Biden’s re-election prospects. This effort included creating fake accounts posing as those run by Americans critical of Mr. Biden’s policies.

“Their content speaks relatively aggressively to the fact that young people are unlikely to vote for Biden on this issue,” Ms. Smith said of China’s response to the protests.

Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who studies information manipulation, said China, Russia and Iran had different motivations for getting involved. However, they have all benefited from highlighting narratives that harm the overall perception of the United States. Iranian state media, which has long supported Hamas, has published more information on the protests than Russia or China and has amplified criticism of the police response from American commentators such as Jackson Hinkle, a he declared.

The focus on the protests follows similar efforts to criticize the $95.3 billion foreign aid package for Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine that Congress passed and Mr. Biden signed into law. last month.

The information epidemiology laboratory, a research group which studies malign influence campaigns, said the Russian information operation Doppelgänger had published content critical of the aid program or focused on the political debate surrounding it. The aim is to present the United States as an unreliable global ally: some articles have claimed that it has abandoned Israel.

Instead, the publications suggest, Israel and other countries should seek new partnerships with Russia and China. Another set of posts shared an article from a website pretending to be Fox News that claimed former President Donald J. Trump would “stop the looting of the U.S. budget.”

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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