Pro-China social media campaign expands to new countries, blames U.S. for COVID

FILE PHOTO: China's President Xi Jinping is shown on a screen through digitally decorated glass during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen
FILE PHOTO: China’s President Xi Jinping is shown on a screen through digitally decorated glass during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 23, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

September 8, 2021

By Joseph Menn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A misinformation campaign on social media in support of Chinese government interests has expanded to new languages and platforms, and it even tried to get people to show up to protests in the United States, researchers said on Wednesday.

Experts at security company FireEye and Alphabet’s Google said the operation was identified in 2019 as running hundreds of accounts in English and Chinese aimed at discrediting the Hong Kong democracy movement. The effort has broadened its mission and spread from Twitter, Facebook and Google to thousands of handles on dozens of sites around the world.

This expansion suggests Chinese interests have made a deeper commitment to the sort of international propaganda techniques Russia has used for several years, experts said.

Some of the new accounts are on networks used predominantly in countries that have not previously been significant Chinese propaganda targets, such as Argentina. Other networks have users around the world but with a large proportion in Russia or Germany.

False information about COVID-10 has been a major focus. For example, accounts on social networking sites vKontakte, LiveJournal and elsewhere in Russian, German, Spanish and other languages have asserted that the novel coronavirus emerged in the United States before China and that it was developed by the U.S. military.

Multiple Russian-language LiveJournal accounts used identical wording: “U.S. Ft. Detrick was the source of COVID-19,” referring to the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick installation in Maryland.

In addition to promoting false information on the virus, researchers said priorities for the group include criticizing fugitive Chinese propagandist Guo Wengui and his ally, former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon, and exploiting concerns about anti-Asian racism.

“We have observed extensive promotion of Russian, German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese-language content on U.S. and non-U.S.-based platforms, in addition to the typical English and Chinese-language activity that has been widely reported on,” FireEye said in a report published Wednesday. Many of the accounts link to each other or use the same photos, helping the researchers see connections among them.

Many of the posts echo claims in state-controlled Chinese media, and they are consistent with other government propaganda efforts. The researchers do not have proof of involvement by a specific arm or ally of Beijing. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

So far, the accounts on the main U.S. platforms and major networks elsewhere such as Russia-based vKontakte have gained little interaction with authentic users, the researchers said.

“A lot of it is tweeting into the void,” said John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at FireEye.

Some of the posts urged protesters to demonstrate against racism in the United States. In addition, they called on protesters to rally in April outside what the accounts said was the New York home of wealthy expatriate Guo, but there was little evidence that people showed up.

The coordinated fake accounts took that in stride, instead distributing doctored photos of a different protest in a different place.

“It’s almost like they are being paid by volume,” instead of engagement, said Shane Huntley, director of the threat analysis group at Google.

Alphabet’s YouTube has been removing about a thousand channels a month tied to the campaign, though most promote Chinese entertainment more than political views or misinformation.

The production quality is improving, with higher-resolution video and better subtitles, suggesting an investment for the long haul.

Though the accounts have not been successful at blending in and attracting native followers, Hultquist said he was concerned that the dedication of resources would lead to improved technique and more convincing misinformation spreading.

“They’ve clearly got a wide mandate that’s global. Someone is giving them pretty broad orders,” Hultquist said.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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