Pro-China misinformation group continues to spread messages, researchers say

More than 2,000 accounts continued to spread Chinese propaganda in the last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Two years ago, researchers uncovered details about a disinformation network that made a coordinated effort to push Chinese government messaging outside the country. Now, a separate research group says the network is still at it, despite efforts by social media companies to stop it.

More than 2,000 accounts continued to spread Chinese propaganda in the last year, according to a new report from the disinformation research group Miburo.

They have promoted such falsehoods as the denial of human rights abuses in China's Xinjiang region, where the Communist Party has carried out repressive policies against the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, and Covid-19 misinformation, like the conspiracy that the US military developed the coronavirus as a bioweapon.

The accounts point to a "well-resourced, high-skill actor that keeps reappearing", said Mr Nick Monaco, the director of China research at Miburo. He added that the timing and messaging of the posts in the network aligned perfectly with public messaging put out by the Chinese government in the last year.

Miburo said it was difficult to determine whether the influence campaign was organised by the ruling Communist Party or if some accounts were by nationalist citizens. But "knowing who pressed the enter key is less important" than the implication of a well-known actor spreading Chinese propaganda "at a high volume on international social media networks", Mr Monaco said in a blog post about the campaign.

China is known to use social media to broadcast its political messages with the aim of shaping global opinion. In June, The New York Times and ProPublica revealed the existence of thousands of videos orchestrated by the Chinese government in which citizens denied abuses in Xinjiang. This week, The Times reported on a set of documents that showed how Chinese officials tap private businesses to generate propaganda on demand.

Miburo said the network, nicknamed "Spamouflage" by researchers, was first discovered by the research group Graphika in a 2019 report. Though some posts have since been removed, Miburo tracked around 2,000 more accounts that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter failed to remove from January 2021 to this month.

Miburo found nearly 8,000 YouTube videos in the network in the past year that collected over 3.6 million views, and links to the videos were posted on both Facebook and Twitter. The researchers also found 1,632 accounts in the network on Facebook, including some accounts that used fake profile photos generated with the help of artificial intelligence and Bangladeshi Facebook pages that later changed their names and started to post about China.

In early December, 287 YouTube channels spreading the Chinese propaganda were still up, Monaco said. All were removed after the researchers sent their data set to YouTube.

Mr Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman, said the channels were terminated in the last month as part of YouTube's continuing investigation into coordinated influence operations linked to China. He said that most of the channels had uploaded "spammy content" that had generated most of the views, and that "a very small subset uploaded content in Chinese and English about China's Covid-19 vaccine efforts and social issues in the US".

Twitter said it had permanently suspended a number of accounts based on Miburo's report under its platform manipulation and spam policy. Ms Margarita Franklin, a Facebook spokesman, said that the company would continue to work with researchers to detect and block the attempts of networks "to come back, like some of the accounts mentioned in this report".

Facebook said that while some of the accounts flagged by Miburo resembled the behaviour of Spamouflage, it could not yet confirm their connection to the network without more research. The network got 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 spread propaganda about coronavirus vaccines. "Many countries (prefer to) buy Chinese vaccines first, US vaccines have side effects," the post said.

By August and September, several Facebook accounts began pushing the false conspiracy that Covid-19 was developed in Fort Detrick, a US military base in Maryland, and alleged that the US military was behind the coronavirus.

But Monaco argued that the most troubling new aspect of this version of the Spamouflage campaign was "the malice of spreading propaganda that denies human rights atrocities on a mass scale" by posting about Xinjiang.

On June 27, two different Facebook pages in the network posted identical messages within 10 minutes of each other, falsely denying forced labour and genocide in Xinjiang and characterising it as "the lie of the century", an unattributed quote of Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman.

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