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Tech giants: Trump claims about Chinese election interference are false

Donald Trump spoke at a United Nations Security Council meeting last month, and as regular readers may recall, the American president made a provocative accusation against China while reading from a prepared text.

“China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election – coming up in November – against my administration,” Trump alleged without evidence, adding, “We don’t want to them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.”

Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech a week later, insisting that Trump was right. Pence said an unnamed “member of our intelligence community” recently told him, “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what the China is doing across this country.”

It’s against this backdrop that Bloomberg News reports that tech giants have no idea what the White House is talking about.

Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. haven’t detected Chinese meddling in the 2018 elections, company officials said, casting doubt on claims by President Donald Trump that the Asian nation is trying to interfere.

The social media giants have reported online disinformation campaigns ahead of the Nov. 6 elections that appear to originate from Russia and Iran. But press representatives for both companies, who spoke on condition they not be identified by name, said they haven’t found evidence so far of such activity from China.

Facebook and Twitter are the latest in a string of tech companies that have made findings undercutting Trump’s claim. Last week, top cybersecurity firms – FireEye Inc., Symantec Corp., and Crowdstrike Inc. – said that, in working to help safeguard the November elections, they haven’t seen evidence of digital interference by China.

Part of the problem here is a disconnect over definitions. When the White House says China is “interfering” in the elections, and the tech giants say they can’t find any evidence of that, it’s because the two groups are talking about two very different things.

When companies like Facebook and Twitter look for proof of foreign interference in an election, they examine accounts engaged in an espionage operation – along the lines of Russia’s attack on the United States in 2016.

But as we discussed in September, that’s not at all what Trump and his team are talking about with Beijing. On the contrary, the White House makes a distinction between direct election interference and indirect election interference.

Direct is what we’ve seen out of Moscow. Indirect is what the president is referring to when he talks about China.

In this case, the American president is looking at this through a trade-specific lens. Follow the train of thought: Trump has launched a trade war, imposing tariffs on China, which has led to a series of retaliatory tariffs from Beijing. Many of China’s tariffs have, as you’ve probably heard, targeted U.S. agricultural products.

And that’s apparently where Trump’s theory kicks in. As the American president sees it, Chinese tariffs have an adverse effect on American farmers, and since rural areas tend to be conservative, the political impact of the trade policy will be a lot of angry Republican voters.

So, as far as Trump is concerned, China tariffs and China’s election interference are the same thing. As far as the president is concerned, there’s “plenty of evidence” because there are both plenty of tariffs and plenty of angry conservative farmers.

Of course Facebook and Twitter can’t find any evidence to substantiate the White House’s allegations. The tech companies are assuming the allegations are real, rather than a silly rhetorical/political game.