According to US security firms, a network of phoney social media accounts linked to the Chinese government has tried to rally Americans against anti-Asian prejudice and unfounded claims that China manufactured the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
Efforts to physically mobilize Americans so far have failed, say experts. They are reminiscent of Russian efforts to create divisiveness during the 2016 presidential election. This is the first recorded instance of suspected Chinese actors targeting Americans to encourage them to attend real-world protests.
Mandiant Threat Intelligence reported that the pro-PRC group behind the protests has extended from using typical social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to 30 social media sites and 40 other websites and forums.
While there have been no effective protests as a result of the group’s demand for physical protests, Mandiant found evidence of the group posting in at least seven languages across the sites to get their message out.
“We have observed extensive promotion of Russian, German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese-language content on U.S. and non-U.S.-based platforms, in addition to the typical English and Chinese-language activity that has been widely reported on,” the Mandiant researchers wrote in the blog post detailing their findings.
“This represents a significant development in our collective understanding of this pro-PRC activity set.”
Several posts in several languages alleging the COVID-19 malware originated in the United States instead of China were uncovered by Mandiant researchers linked to the influence activities. Then there were the posts that made Asian Americans angry.
In 2019, Twitter deactivated around 1,000 accounts tied to a state-backed campaign aimed at sabotaging anti-Chinese government protests in Hong Kong.
Following Twitter’s findings, Facebook removed many pro-Chinese identities, pages, and organizations.
Last year, Google took action against this effect by removing over 3,000 YouTube channels that discussed themes like as racial justice and the United States’ response to COVID-19.
Shane Huntley, the head of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, tweeted on Wednesday that Google had been watching the influence campaign for the past two years and that posts frequently had only a modest amount of online activity before being removed.
“Despite the lack of engagement, the volume and persistence shown by this network is noteworthy,” Huntley tweeted. “We anticipate they will continue to experiment to drive higher engagement and encourage others in the community to continue tracking this actor and taking action against them.”
While the influence group has had minimal success, Mandiant analysts warned that the expansion of the sites used and languages meant that the influence group was becoming a more serious concern.
“The attempt to physically mobilize protesters in the U.S. provides early warning that the actors responsible may be starting to explore more direct means of influence and may be indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories,” the researchers wrote.
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