WASHINGTON—The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked turmoil in the United States and outrage around the world, but authoritarian governments have seen it as something else: an opportunity.
China, Russia, Iran, and other countries have moved quickly to exploit the crisis to further their own interests, flooding the internet and state media front pages with statements, propaganda, and disinformation.
“Tonight seeing VERY heavy social media activity on #protests & counter reactions from social media accounts linked to at least 3 foreign adversaries,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted on Saturday. “They didn’t create these divisions. But they are actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles.”
Mike Gonzalez, a foreign policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, called China, Russia, and Iran partners in an “axis of disinformation.”
“We’re an open society,” he said. “Our fault lines are there for all to see. They use our racial tension, they use identity politics … to sow discord and to exacerbate our differences to make us more vulnerable.”
Each country has its own motivations for interfering: Iran wants U.S. sanctions lifted, China wants to deflect attention from its crackdown on Hong Kong and other human rights issues, and Russia wants the world to see democracies as weak. Among the countries’ overlapping motivations: distract from domestic problems and to undermine U.S. authority on the world stage.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—who is engaged in a yearslong crackdown on his political opponents—joined in, tweeting that Floyd’s death was “one of the most painful manifestations of the unjust order we stand against across the world.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a tweet compared how Floyd, a black man, died—with a white police officer’s knee pressed against his neck until he became unresponsive—to the U.S. sanctions against Iran. He said democratic countries are “quick to judge … non-Western societies,” but if America dislikes current criticism and “wants to keep lips sealed now, it should always keep them that way.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired back at Zarif: “You hang homosexuals, stone women, and exterminate Jews.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry condemned the “serious problems” of police brutality and said that “racial discrimination against minorities is a social ill in the United States.”
In response, scores of Twitter users blasted China for interning more than 1 million Uighur Muslims and oppressing religious minorities, including Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and the Falun Gong.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the United States must reform how it treats freedom of the press following reports of police targeting journalists as they covered protests.
According to a Politico analysis, between Saturday and Monday alone, Chinese and Russian activists tweeted more than 1,200 times about the unrest in the United States. This week, Twitter suspended what it said were fake accounts after a user with three followers tweeted misinformation that others retweeted more than 500,000 times.
This is only the latest example of foreign disinformation campaigns. Russian “troll farms” engaged in a protracted online disinformation effort during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. According to an October 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee report, an estimated 400 employees with the Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency (IRA) worked around the clock to flood social media with propaganda. One employee admitted their goal was to “set Americans against their own government.”
The report found no signs that Russia has slowed down its online activity, noting, “IRA activity on social media did not cease, but rather increased after Election Day 2016.”
In September, Twitter announced the suspensions of more than 200,000 Chinese state-controlled accounts. In March, ProPublica published an investigation on a disinformation network on Twitter with links to the Chinese government. Analysts tracked more than 10,000 suspicious accounts that peddled Beijing-approved propaganda. Many of the posts criticized protests in Hong Kong and deflected blame for China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Information is a weapon in closed societies,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It has nothing to do with what the U.S. domestic context is. It’s about how our foreign adversaries are able to spin any domestic crisis in the United States to make us look not only not exceptional, but hypocritical.”