Pro-China YouTube Network Used AI to Smear US, Report Says

In a slightly stilted tone and with slightly awkward grammar, the American-accented voice on YouTube last month ridiculed Washington’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, saying the United States was incapable of “playing their role as mediator like China” and “now finds itself in a position of significant isolation. »

The 10-minute message was one of more than 4,500 videos from an unusually large network of YouTube channels spreading pro-China and anti-US narratives, according to a report released this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on security.

Some videos used artificially generated avatars or voiceovers, making the campaign the institute’s first known influence operation combining AI voices with video essays.

The goal of the campaign, the report said, was clear: to influence world opinion in favor of China and against the United States. The videos promoted narratives that Chinese technology was superior to American technology, that the United States was doomed to economic collapse, and that China and Russia were responsible geopolitical actors. Some clips flattered Chinese companies like Huawei and denigrated American companies like Apple.

Content from at least 30 of the network’s channels has attracted nearly 120 million views and 730,000 subscribers since last year, along with occasional advertisements from Western companies, according to the report.

Some videos featured titles and scripts that appeared to be direct translations of common Chinese expressions and Chinese company names, according to the report. Others mentioned information that could be attributed to reports produced and broadcast primarily in mainland China.

Misinformation – such as the false claim that some Southeast Asian countries had adopted the Chinese yuan as their own currency – was common. Videos were often able to respond quickly to current events. Jacinta Keast, an analyst at the Australian institute, wrote that the coordinated campaign could be “one of the most successful China-related influence operations ever seen on social media.”

YouTube said in a statement that its teams were working around the clock to protect its community, adding that “we have invested heavily in robust systems to proactively detect coordinated influence operations.” The company said it welcomed the research efforts and had shut down several of the channels mentioned in the report for violating the platform’s policies.

Efforts to promote pro-China messages have increased in recent years but have featured largely low-quality content that has garnered limited engagement or failed to build a significant audience, Ms. Keast said.

“This campaign actually leverages artificial intelligence, which gives it the ability to create compelling threat content at scale and at very limited cost compared to previous campaigns we’ve seen,” she said .

Several other recent reports suggest that China has become more aggressive in its propaganda denigrating the United States. Historically, its influence operations have focused on defending the Communist Party government and its policies on issues like the persecution of the Uyghurs or the fate of Taiwan.

China began targeting the United States more directly amid mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic, echoing long-standing Russian efforts to discredit the leadership and American influence at home and abroad.

Over the summer, researchers from Microsoft and other companies uncovered evidence of inauthentic accounts that China used to falsely accuse the United States of using energy weapons to start the wildfires murderers in Hawaii in August.

In a report In September, the State Department accused China of using “deceptive and coercive methods” to shape the global information environment, including creating fake social media accounts and even fake news agencies. information. Other research suggests that China actively spread disinformation to Taiwan that the United States would ultimately betray the island nation.

Meta announced last month that it had removed 4,789 Chinese Facebook accounts impersonating Americans to debate political issues, warning that the campaign appeared to be setting the stage for interference in the 2024 presidential elections. This is the fifth network with ties to China that Meta detects this year, the largest among all other countries.

The advent of artificial technology appears to have attracted particular interest from Beijing. Ms Keast, of the Australian institute, said misinformation traffickers were increasingly using easily accessible video editing and AI programs to create large volumes of compelling content.

She said the network of pro-China YouTube channels most likely introduced English-language scripts into readily available online text-to-video conversion software or other programs that require no technical expertise and can produce clips in a few minutes. Such programs often allow users to select AI-generated voice narration and customize gender, accent, and tone of voice.

Some of the voices used in the pro-China network were clearly synthetic. Ms Keast noted that the audio lacked natural pauses and included pronunciation errors and occasional notes of electronic interference. Sometimes multiple network channels used the same voice. (One group of videos, however, attempted to fool viewers into believing a real person was speaking, by incorporating audio elements such as “I’m your host, Steffan.”)

In 39 of the videos, Ms Keast found at least 10 artificially generated avatars advertised by a British AI company. She wrote that she also discovered what may be the first example of an influence operation from a digital avatar created by a Chinese company – a woman in a red dress named Yanni.

The scale of the pro-China network is likely even greater, the report said. Similar channels appear to target Indonesians and French people. Three separate channels posted videos on chip production using similar thumbnail images and the same title translated into English, French and Spanish.