Meta says it disrupted a massive disinformation campaign linked to Chinese law enforcement


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception in Shanghai on May 20, 2014.

Sasha Mordovits | Getty Images

Parent company Facebook and Instagram meta The social media company said on Tuesday it had disrupted a disinformation campaign linked to Chinese law enforcement authorities that the social media company described as “the largest known covert cross-platform influence operation in the world.”

The company closed more than 7,700 accounts and 930 pages on Facebook. Influence Network has produced positive posts about China, with a particular focus on positive comments about China’s Xinjiang province, where the government’s treatment of the Uighur minority has led to international sanctions.

Meta said the network also attempted to spread negative commentary about the United States and misinformation in multiple languages ​​about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The network has been or has been on almost every popular social media platform, including Medium; reddit; Tumblr; Youtube; and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to the company.

Meta began looking for signs of a Chinese influence operation on its own platforms after reports in 2022 highlighted how a Chinese government-linked disinformation campaign had targeted a human rights NGO.

“These operations are large, but they’re clumsy and what we don’t see is any real sign that they are building real audiences on our platform or anywhere else on the Internet,” Ben Nimmo, global head of threat intelligence at Meta, told CNBC’s Eamon. Javers.

META researchers were able to link the latest disinformation network to an earlier influence campaign in 2019. Code named Spamouflage.

“Together, we estimate that Spamouflage is the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation to date,” Meta said in its quarterly threat report. “Although the people behind this activity tried to hide their identities and their coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement,” he added.

Meta has also identified and disrupted other operations, and published a more detailed analysis of a Russian disinformation campaign that it identified shortly after the start of the 2022 war in Ukraine.

The unrest comes ahead of what could be a contentious election cycle. Concerns about the role of influence campaigns in past elections have led social media platforms, including Meta, to set stricter guidelines on the type of political content that is allowed and the labels they add to that content.

Influence campaigns have affected Meta users in the past, notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016.

But this disinformation network, though prolific, has not been effective, Mita cybersecurity executives said on a conference call. Together, the campaign pages had more than 500,000 followers, most of them fake and from Bangladesh, Brazil and Vietnam.

A group identifying itself as the China-American Foundation waits to see Chinese President Xi Jinping’s motorcade before his meeting with former US President Donald Trump at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 6, 2017.

Joe Skipper | Reuters

The operators post headlines that don’t make sense in the context of the original post or they post identical content across multiple social media platforms, in multiple languages, according to the threat report.

“These operations are really big, and they’re very ongoing,” Nemo told Javers. “The Chinese operation in particular was operating across more than 50 different internet platforms and was trying to publish content anywhere online.” “It keeps going. They keep trying. We’ve seen them evolve.”

One of the repetitive and false headlines identified by META researchers was translated as “Great evidence! Suspicious US seafood received prior to outbreak at Huanan Seafood Market”. This comment was repeated in eight different languages, including Russian and Latin.

“The truth is: Fort Detrick is where the coronavirus originated,” reads another false headline identified by Meta researchers. There is no evidence to support any of the claims. Many scientific studies has been defined Wuhan market as epicenter For most early cases of COVID-19.

The campaign also attempted to plant disinformation about accused billionaire Guo Wengui, who fled China in 2014 before being arrested by US authorities in 2023 on charges of fraud and money laundering. One of the headlines read: “Guo Wengui named best traitor in the United States.”

Meta researchers found that Steve Bannon, a former Trump administration official and close associate of Wengui, was also targeted by Chinese disinformation efforts. One of the headlines read: “Bannon is no longer safe from the law.”

Another headline said: “Guo Wengui, Guo Wengui, Bannon, Bannon, Yan Limeng, the ant gang’s grief is destined to be sterile.”

In this courtroom sketch, Gu Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman with ties to Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon, sits in a New York courtroom as he stands accused of leading an elaborate plot to defraud Gu’s online followers out of more than a billion dollars. March 15, 2023.

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Meta was also able to find “unusual” hashtags associated with the network.

For example, in April 2023, federal law enforcement located a secret police station for overseas Chinese in lower Manhattan. Matt Olsen, the assistant attorney general for national security, said the Chinese government had “established a clandestine physical presence in New York City to monitor and intimidate dissidents and critics of its government.” he said at the time. the Times of London It also reported the existence of a similar outpost in England. In an apparent response, the disinformation campaign began publishing content using the hashtag #ThisispureslanderthatChinahasfoundedasecretpolicedepartmentinEngland.

CNBC found that the hashtag was still trending on X as of Sunday evening, with tweets linked to a YouTube video questioning The Times’ reporting. It was not immediately clear whether X had taken steps to disable the network of influence on its own platform.

“As we investigated, we realized we could link all these different groups together,” Nimmo told CNBC. “For the first time, we were able to link this activity to individuals associated with law enforcement in China.”

Meta’s cybersecurity team says it’s ready to identify and disrupt more networks of influence in the run-up to the 2024 election.

“If we see some kind of pivot to talk more directly about American political issues, we can see that earlier and we can stop it in our tracks,” Nimmo said. “There will always be more work to do – we always need to stay alert. But that’s our job. That’s what we do and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

— CNBC’s Eamon Javers and Priya Cousins ​​contributed to this report.

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