Campus Protests Give Russia, China and Iran Fuel to Exploit U.S. Divide

America’s adversaries have mounted online campaigns to amplify the social and political conflicts over Gaza flaring at universities, researchers say.

A protester with a Palestinian flag on a Columbia University building on Monday. So far, there is little evidence that U.S. adversaries have provided material or organizational support to the protests.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Steven Lee MyersTiffany Hsu

An article on a fake online news outlet that Meta has linked to Russia’s information operations attributed the clashes unfolding on American college campuses to the failures of the Biden administration. A newspaper controlled by the Communist Party of China said the police crackdowns exposed the “double standards and hypocrisy” in the United States when it comes to free speech.

On X, a spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Kanaani, posted a cartoon of the police arresting a young protester in the guise of the Statue of Liberty. “Imprisonment of #freedom in the U.S.A.,” he wrote.

As protests over the war in Gaza have spread across the United States, Russia, China and Iran have seized on them to score geopolitical points abroad and stoke tensions within the United States, according to researchers who have identified both overt and covert efforts by the countries to amplify the protests since they began.

There is little evidence — at least so far — that the countries have provided material or organizational support to the protests, the way Russia recruited unwitting Black Lives Matter protesters to stage rallies before the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Nonetheless, the campaigns have portrayed the United States as a country rived by social and political turmoil. In the past two weeks alone, state media in Russia, China and Iran have produced nearly 400 articles in English about the protests, according to NewsGuard, an organization that tracks misinformation online. The 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 organizations.

“It’s a wound that our adversaries are going to try to spread salt on because they can,” said Darren Linvill, a director of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University, which has identified campaigns by all three countries. “The more we fight amongst ourselves, the easier their life is and the more they can get away with.”

Researchers are concerned that some foreign influence operations are also pivoting toward the presidential election in November, seeking to inflame partisan tensions, denigrate democracy and promote isolationism. All three adversaries have unleashed a deluge of propaganda and disinformation ever since the war over Gaza began in October, seeking to undercut Israel and, as its principal ally, the United States while expressing support for Hamas or the Palestinians generally.

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

“The policies of the Biden administration are complicating the situation inside the country,” the article on TruthGate, one of a handful of websites that Meta said last year were created by a Russian information operation known as Doppelgänger to spread propaganda under the guise of an American news outlet, said on Wednesday. “In the rush to help our controversial allies, they have completely forgotten about domestic affairs. Now the situation seems irreparable.”

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The New York City police deployed heavy equipment to enter the occupied Hamilton Hall at Columbia this week. Some Chinese-linked accounts have criticized law enforcement response to the protests as hypocritical.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

The influence efforts have been tracked by researchers at 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.

One covert Chinese influence campaign known as Spamouflage, which was first linked to an arm of the Ministry of Public Security in 2019, has also turned its attention to the protests. Some posts on X claimed that the United States was “DISPLAYING TOTALITARIANISM.” Similar language — such as “how could there be such rough police officers in the world” and “expulsion, arrest, suppression!” — echoed across several accounts identified by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a research organization in Washington focused on national security.

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

Many of the accounts linked to Spamouflage share similar content. One on X, with nearly 18,000 followers, retweeted a post from a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan that criticized the police response to student protesters and featured Mandarin-subtitled footage of the campus demonstrations. Its profile photo was an image of Winter, the South Korean pop singer. It listed its location as the United States but typically posted during Asia’s day, while its content frequently included grammatical errors.

Another account on X, which according to Mr. Linvill of Clemson was also linked to Spamouflage, an operation sometimes known as Dragonbridge, reposted a message by a prominent pro-Palestinian organization in New York City calling on protesters to “flood the encampments” at the city’s universities.

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The protests have shifted the focus of propaganda to the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel, arguing that America has undermined its global standing.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

The researchers, however, have not detected a direct effort to organize protests or provoke violence. The focus, rather, has been to highlight the divisions that the war in Gaza has exposed in public opinion in the United States — and the potential effect that has on government policy.

Brian Liston, an analyst with Recorded Future, said that in the case of Russia, the campaign “was attempting to stoke tensions on both sides of the protest argument,” alternately praising the protesters and denouncing them as antisemitic.

In many instances, the campaigns are simply amplifying sentiments expressed by the protesters and their supporters. Chen Weihua, an outspoken editor and columnist for China Daily, the official state newspaper in English, has recently reposted messages on X from people like Jill Stein, the presidential candidate of the Green Party, and Cynthia Nixon, the actress from “Sex in the City.”

For China, the scenes of American police officers in riot gear arresting young protesters have particular resonance because of the sharp criticism the Communist government faced from the United States and other democracies when its security forces clashed with protesters in Hong Kong for months in 2019 over the reversal 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 told the Hong Kong government to exercise restraint and not disrupt reasonable demonstrations,” one account linked to Spamouflage declared. “Now facing American students, the police take direct action and arrest them!”

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

Her organization and others previously identified an incipient effort to undermine President Biden’s re-election prospects. That effort has included creating fake accounts posing as those run by Americans critical of Mr. Biden’s policies.

“Their content is relatively aggressively talking about how young people are unlikely to vote for Biden over this as an issue,” Ms. Smith said of the Chinese 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. They all, however, benefited from highlighting narratives that damage global perceptions of the United States. State media in Iran, which has long supported Hamas, has posted more about the protests than Russia or China and amplified criticism of the police response from American commentators such as Jackson Hinkle, he said.

The emphasis 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 last month.

The Information Epidemiology Lab, a research group that studies malign influence campaigns, said the Russian information operation Doppelgänger had been posting content critical of the aid package or focused on the political debate surrounding it. The goal is to portray the United States as an unreliable global ally — some posts claimed that it had abandoned Israel.

Instead, the posts suggested, Israel and other countries should seek new partnerships with Russia and China. Another series of posts shared an article from a website masquerading as Fox News, which claimed that former President Donald J. Trump would “stop the plundering of the U.S. budget.”

Steven Lee Myers covers misinformation and disinformation from San Francisco. Since joining The Times in 1989, he has reported from around the world, including Moscow, Baghdad, Beijing and Seoul. More about Steven Lee Myers

Tiffany Hsu reports on misinformation and disinformation and its origins, movement and consequences. She has been a journalist for more than two decades. More about Tiffany Hsu

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