Researchers Including Microsoft Spot Chinese Disinformation Campaign Using AI-Generated Photos

“Until now, China’s influence campaigns have been focused on amplifying propaganda defending its policies on Taiwan and other subjects,” reports the New York Times.

But a new piece co-authored by the newspaper’s national security correspondent and its misinformation investigative reporter notes a new effort identified by researchers from Microsoft, the RAND Corporation, the University of Maryland, the intelligence company Recorded Future, and news-rating service NewsGuard. And that newly-discovered effort “suggests that Beijing is making more direct attempts to sow discord in the United States.”

It began when, sensing an opportunity,”China’s increasingly resourceful information warriors pounced” after high winds in Hawaii downed three power lines that sparked wildfires in Hawaii on August 8th…

The disaster was not natural, they said in a flurry of false posts that spread across the internet, but was the result of a secret “weather weapon” being tested by the United States. To bolster the plausibility, the posts carried photographs that appeared to have been generated by artificial intelligence programs, making them among the first to use these new tools to bolster the aura of authenticity of a disinformation campaign… Recorded Future first reported that the Chinese government mounted a covert campaign to blame a “weather weapon” for the fires, identifying numerous posts in mid-August falsely claiming that MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, had revealed “the amazing truth behind the wildfire.” Posts with the exact language appeared on social media sites across the internet, including Pinterest, Tumblr, Medium and Pixiv, a Japanese site used by artists. Other inauthentic accounts spread similar content, often accompanied with mislabeled videos, including one from a popular TikTok account, The Paranormal Chic, that showed a transformer explosion in Chile…

The Chinese campaign operated across many of the major social media platforms — and in many languages, suggesting it was aimed at reaching a global audience. Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center identified inauthentic posts in 31 languages, including French, German and Italian, but also in less prominent ones like Igbo, Odia and Guarani. The artificially generated images of the Hawaii wildfires identified by Microsoft’s researchers appeared on multiple platforms, including a Reddit post in Dutch. “These specific A.I.-generated images appear to be exclusively used” by Chinese accounts used in this campaign, Microsoft said in a report. “They do not appear to be present elsewhere online.”
The researchers “suggested that China was building a network of accounts that could be put to use in future information operations, including the next U.S. presidential election,” according to the article. It adds that president Biden “has cut off China’s access to the most advanced chips and the equipment made to produce them.”

The article adds that the impact of China’s misinformation campaign “is difficult to measure, though early indications suggest that few social media users engaged with the most outlandish of the conspiracy theories.”

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