This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Facebook’s parent company Meta has deleted thousands of accounts with suspected links to the Chinese government, describing them as “the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation in the world.”
The Chinese Communist Party had targeted more than 50 apps, including Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, TikTok and Reddit, the company said in an Aug. 29 blog post.
“We were able to tie this activity together to confirm it was part of one operation known in the security community as Spamouflage and link it to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement,” it said, citing similar threats originating out of Russia.
China has been stepping up its efforts to influence and manipulate news and information worldwide, and has used an array of tools to project a positive image of itself abroad, the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House reported in September 2022.
Meta said it had removed 7,704 Facebook accounts, 954 Pages, 15 Groups and 15 Instagram accounts originating in China for violating its policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The network had targeted democratic Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, as well as global Chinese-speaking audiences, the company said in its Adversarial Threat Report for the second quarter of 2023.
“This network was run by geographically dispersed operators across China who appear to have been centrally provisioned with internet access and content directions,” the report said.
The content included positive commentary about China and its actions in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, as well as criticisms of the United States, Western foreign policies, and targeted critics of the Chinese government, including journalists and researchers, it said.
‘The main battlefield is Twitter’
Netherlands-based rights activist Lin Shengliang said pro-Beijing trolls are still going strong on X, formerly Twitter, however.
“The Chinese Communist Party has always engaged in cultural penetration and narrative penetration overseas,” Lin said. “The main battlefield is Twitter.”
Lin said many of the trolls are prisoners in China’s carceral system.
“It used to hire internet commentators in the early days, but it has started getting prisoners to work as trolls in groups,” he said. “They are more organized now, and sometimes pretend to be dissidents, and try to change the direction of the narrative at critical moments.”
Meta said it had identified “multiple distinct clusters” of fake accounts being run from different parts of China.
“Their behavior suggested that they were operated by groups who may have worked from a shared location, such as an office,” the Adversarial Threat Report said. “Each cluster worked to a clear shift pattern, with bursts of activity in the mid-morning and early afternoon, Beijing time, with breaks for lunch and supper, and then a final burst of activity in the evening.”
And while the accounts were geographically hundreds of miles apart, they often shared the same proxy infrastructure and posted identical content.
“These clusters of activity … shared identical content across many internet platforms – not just links and articles, but short, ‘personal’ comments as well,” the report said.
“These comments were designed to appear unique and personal, using terms like ‘I’ and ‘we’ and referring to individual experiences and beliefs. However, hundreds of different accounts made the same “personal” comments on many different services and websites,” it said.
Sometimes the comments would even have a number attached, indicating it had likely been copied and pasted from a numbered list.
Troll army of millions
Financial analyst Wang Jian said overseas social media platforms typically underestimate the scale of China’s online troll army.
“There are tens of millions in China’s troll army, two million of whom are full time,” Wang said. “In addition to those two million, local governments and other institutions including colleges and universities have their own information officers or online commentators.”
“This is the 50-cent army,” he said. “If you post anything on X, they will come and curse you, quarrel with you and try to lead a trend.”
“The Chinese Communist Party relies on propaganda and brainwashing,” Wang said. “If it didn’t, the people would rebel.”
He said some social media platforms seem slow to take action, despite the growing evidence of coordinated action.
“They all want to retain the possibility of doing business in mainland China,” Wang said.