Pro-China group continues to spread disinformation, researchers say

Two years ago, researchers uncovered details of a disinformation network that made a coordinated effort to spread the Chinese government’s messages outside the country. Today, a separate research group says the network is still at work, despite efforts by social media companies to stop it.

More than 2,000 accounts have continued to disseminate Chinese propaganda in the past year, according to a new report from the Miburo disinformation research group. The stories promoted lies such as denial of human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region, where the Communist Party has pursued repressive policies against Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, and disinformation about COVID- 19, like the plot that the US military developed the coronavirus as a biological weapon.

Accounts point to a “well-endowed and highly skilled actor who keeps reappearing,” said Nick Monaco, director of research on China at Miburo. He added that the timing and messaging of messages on the network aligned perfectly with the public messages released by the Chinese government last year.

Miburo said it was difficult to determine whether the influence campaign was organized by the ruling Communist Party or whether some accounts were run by nationalist citizens. But “knowing who pressed the Enter key is less important” than the involvement of a well-known actor spreading Chinese propaganda “at high volume on international social media,” Monaco wrote in a blog post about the campaign. .

China is known to use social media to disseminate its political messages with the aim of shaping world opinion. In June, the New York Times and ProPublica revealed the existence of thousands of videos orchestrated by the Chinese government in which citizens deny the abuses in Xinjiang. This week, The Times reported on a set of documents that showed how Chinese authorities were exploiting private companies to generate on-demand propaganda.

A screenshot provided by the Miburo Disinformation Research Group of an example of video researchers found on YouTube. | MIBURO / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

Miburo said the network, dubbed “Spamouflage” by researchers, was first discovered by the Graphika research group in a 2019 report. Although some posts have since been deleted, Miburo has followed around 2,000 accounts. additional ones that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter failed to remove from January 2021 until this month.

Miburo has found nearly 8,000 YouTube videos on the network over the past year, which have garnered more than 3.6 million views, and links to the videos have been posted on Facebook and Twitter. Researchers also found 1,632 accounts in the network on Facebook, including accounts that used fake profile photos generated using artificial intelligence and Bangladeshi Facebook pages which then changed their names and started to publish articles about China.

As of early December, 287 YouTube channels broadcasting Chinese propaganda were still active, Monaco said. All were deleted after the researchers sent their dataset to YouTube.

Farshad Shadloo, a spokesperson for YouTube, said the channels were removed last month as part of YouTube’s ongoing investigation into coordinated influence operations related to China. He said most channels uploaded “spam content” that generated the most views, and “a very small subset uploaded Chinese and English content on the efforts. China’s COVID-19 Vaccination and Social Problems in the United States. “

Twitter said it has permanently suspended a number of accounts based on Miburo’s report as part of its platform manipulation and spam policy. Margarita Franklin, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the company would continue to work with researchers to detect and block attempts by networks “to come back, like some of the accounts mentioned in this report.”

A screenshot provided by the Miburo Disinformation Research Group of an example of a researchers post found on a Facebook account, with credentials redacted |  MIBURO / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
A screenshot provided by the Miburo Disinformation Research Group of an example of a researchers post found on a Facebook account, with credentials redacted | MIBURO / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

Facebook said that although some of the accounts Miburo reported looked like Spamouflage behavior, it could not yet confirm their connection to the network without further research. The network had little engagement on the platform, and a handful of accounts spotted by Miburo were false positives, the company said.

In January, according to Miburo’s report, a Facebook user linked to a YouTube video that disseminated propaganda about the coronavirus vaccines. “Many countries [prefer to] buy Chinese vaccines first, US vaccines have side effects, ”the post said.

In August and September, several Facebook accounts began pushing the bogus plot that COVID-19 was developed at Fort Detrick, a US military base in Maryland, and alleged that the US military was behind the coronavirus.

But Monaco argued that the most disturbing new aspect of this version of the spam campaign was “the malice of spreading propaganda that denies large-scale human rights atrocities” by posting in Xinjiang.

On June 27, two different Facebook pages in the network posted identical messages 10 minutes apart, falsely denying forced labor and the genocide in Xinjiang and calling it a “lie of the century,” an unattributed quote from Zhao Lijian, a Chinese spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing you can help us tell the story right.