China-based networks sowing disinformation in West: Meta

AFP , Thursday 4 May 2023

A China-based online network tried to recruit protesters in Europe and set up a media firm in Britain as part of a disinformation campaign, Facebook owner Meta said.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 12, 2023 this picture taken in Toulouse, southwestern France shows a tablet displaying the logo of the company Meta. ( AFP)


The network's social media accounts -- which ranged from Facebook to YouTube, Telegram and Twitter -- pushed content focusing on incendiary political issues in Europe and the United States, according to Meta.

Meta said it had removed more than 100 Facebook pages, profiles and Instagram accounts linked to the network, accusing them of violating its policies against coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

Another 50 accounts linked to another China-based network had also been taken down, Meta said.

"These latest networks experimented with a range of tactics we haven't seen in China-based operations before," Meta said in its quarterly Adversarial Threat Report, published on Wednesday.

"The latest behaviours included creating a front media company in the West, hiring freelance writers around the world, offering to recruit protesters, and co-opting an NGO in Africa."

While Meta had taken down some of the accounts, much of the networks' content remains online.

On Twitter, an account named in the Meta report called New Europe Observation shared incendiary content attacking migrants to Europe until as recently as April 28.

One tweet by the group from August last year said it was hiring "part-timers" to attend a protest in Hungary against billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a financier who is frequently a target of far-right conspiracy theories.

Some of its Twitter posts used viral tweets from far-right accounts.

Another account that Meta said was run by the network focused more closely on divisive issues in the United States, including police brutality, crime.

The network was run through a UK-based front company called London New Europe Ltd, Meta said, which company records and Google Maps showed operated out of a nondescript apartment building in northeast London.

The group sought to hire central Asian freelance writers to produce content, as well as "tried to engage individuals to record English-language videos scripted by the network", Meta said.

Meta said that, while the network took steps to conceal its origins and the identities of those involved, it had found links to a Chinese company called Xi'an Tianwendian Network Technology.

It also operated 9 am to 5 pm China time, with a dip in activity during lunchtime, Meta said.

Chinese company records seen by AFP showed the company's boss had the same name as a Chinese national listed as a director of London New Europe Ltd in the UK.

Xi'an Tianwendian Network Technology did not respond to requests for comment from AFP.

AFP also sought to contact New Europe Observation on Thursday via an email address listed on its Twitter account but received no reply.

Another China-based group primarily focused on India and Tibet named in the report spent $73,000 on Facebook advertising, Meta said.

Twitter and Facebook are officially blocked in mainland China, with users requiring banned VPNs to use their websites and apps.

Russia has long been accused of operating "troll farms" in a bid to influence public opinion in the West, with China not having been regarded as advanced in that area.

But Meta said the latest networks it had uncovered signalled China-based operations were becoming more sophisticated.

US authorities also said last month they had charged a group of Chinese Ministry of Public Security officers, saying they had operated a network of social media accounts spreading pro-Beijing messaging.

And in February, research firm Graphika revealed it had discovered a China-linked network promoting a fictitious news outlet called Wolf News that used AI-generated anchors to spread pro-Beijing talking points.

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