June 5, 2023

New York

Facebook’s parent company Meta announced Wednesday that it has taken down a network of more than 100 China-based accounts that posed as organizations in the US and Europe and pushed pro-Beijing talking points.

The Facebook and Instagram accounts, which included a fictitious news organization and posed as a think tank, likely used deepfake images developed through artificial intelligence to make the fake accounts appear legitimate, Meta said.

The network, which had more than 15,000 followers on Meta’s platforms, appears to have had some financial resources behind it. In one instance, the people behind the accounts called for protests in Budapest against George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and frequent target of right-wing groups, and posted on Twitter an offer to pay people to attend. The accounts also offered to pay freelance writers to contribute to at least one of its websites.

The accounts were awash with pro-China commentary, including “warnings against boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics; allegations of US foreign policy in Africa,” and “claims of comfortable living conditions for Uyghurs in China,” Meta said in its report. The fake accounts also posted “negative commentary about Uyghur activists and critics of the Chinese state,” it said.

Meta did not link the network to the Chinese government, instead saying it found links to individuals in China associated with a technology company. CNN has reached out to the company for comment. Meta regularly takes down covert influence campaigns and discloses information about them in quarterly reports.

The takedowns “signal a shift in the nature” of China-based influence networks, as Chinese operatives embrace new tactics like setting up a front company, hiring freelance writers around the world and offering to recruit protesters, Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, told reporters on Tuesday.

While the networks are generally small and have struggled to build an audience, “they are experimenting with diverse tactics and that’s always something we want to keep an eye on,” Nimmo said. 

The tactics are similar to those used by Russian operatives during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Using fake personas and posing as representatives of US political and activist organizations, Russians successfully recruited unwitting Americans to take part in political stunts.

Chinese operatives have in recent years “evolved their posture” from being concerned about being caught influencing US elections to seeing influence operations as another tool to project power, a US official told CNN.

“We’re keeping a close eye” on the Chinese influence operations heading into the 2024 election, the official said.

Indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in 2018 detailed how disinformation from Russia were designed to exacerbate existing divisions in the United States.

Ahead of the 2022 US midterm election, FBI officials expressed concern that Chinese operatives appeared to be engaging in “Russian-style influence activities” that stoke American divisions. Russian and Chinese government-affiliated operatives and organizations both promoted misinformation about the integrity of American elections that originated in the US during the midterm election season, FBI officials have said. 


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