Pro-Chinese social media campaign expands to new countries, blaming the US for COVID
(Changes the reference from COVID-10 to COVID-19.)
By Joseph Menn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A misinformation campaign on social media in support of the Chinese government’s interests has spread to new languages and platforms, and is even attempting to get people to show up for protests in the United States, researchers said Wednesday.
Experts from Alphabet’s security firm FireEye and Google said the operation was identified in 2019 as hundreds of English and Chinese language accounts aimed at discrediting the Hong Kong democracy movement. The effort has expanded its mission, spreading from Twitter, Facebook, and Google to thousands of handles on dozen of websites around the world.
This expansion suggests that Chinese interests have become more committed to the kind of international propaganda techniques Russia has been using for several years, experts said.
Some of the new accounts are on networks that are mainly used in countries that were not previously a major Chinese propaganda target, such as Argentina. Other networks have users all over the world, but with a large proportion in Russia or Germany.
False information about COVID-19 was the focus. For example, accounts on the social networking sites vKontakte, LiveJournal and elsewhere in Russian, German, Spanish and other languages have claimed that the novel coronavirus appeared in the United States before China and was developed by the US military.
Several Russian-language LiveJournal accounts used the same wording: “US Ft. Detrick was the source of COVID-19,” referring to the US Army’s Fort Detrick installation in Maryland.
In addition to promoting false information about the virus, the researchers said the group’s priorities are to criticize fugitive Chinese propagandist Guo Wengui and his ally, former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon, and exploit concerns about anti-Asian racism.
“In addition to the typical English and Chinese language activities that have been widely reported, we have seen extensive advertising for Russian, German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese-language content on US and non-US based platforms.” in a report released on Wednesday. Many of the accounts are linked or use the same photos so researchers can see links between them.
The story goes on
Many of the posts reflect allegations in state-controlled Chinese media and are consistent with other government propaganda efforts. The researchers have no evidence of the involvement of any particular arm or ally of Beijing. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, the accounts on major U.S. platforms and major networks elsewhere like Russia-based vKontakte have found little interaction with authentic users, the researchers said.
“A lot of things are being tweeted nowhere,” said John Hultquist, FireEye’s vice president of intelligence analysis.
Some of the posts urged protesters to demonstrate against racism in the United States. They also urged protesters to gather outside the New York home of wealthy expatriate Guo in April, but there was little evidence of people showing up.
The coordinated fake accounts accepted this and instead distributed fake photos of another protest in another location.
“It’s almost like getting paid by volume,” said Shane Huntley, director of the threat analysis group at Google.
Alphabet’s YouTube has removed about a thousand channels each month in connection with the campaign, although most of it promotes Chinese entertainment more than political views or misinformation.
Production quality improves with higher resolution videos and better subtitles, suggesting a long-term investment.
Although the reports failed to integrate and attract local followers, Hultquist said he was concerned that the use of resources would lead to improved technique and more persuasive dissemination of misinformation.
“You clearly have a far-reaching mandate that is global. Someone gives them pretty far-reaching orders, ”said Hultquist.
(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)