Pro-China online network used fake accounts to urge Asian Americans to participate in protests, researchers say

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WASHINGTON – A network of fake social media accounts linked to the Chinese government tried to lure Americans to real-world protests against anti-Asian-American racism and popular but unfounded claims that China designed the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic, according to US security companies.

Americans’ attempts to physically mobilize have so far failed, researchers said. But they represent a disturbing effort reminiscent of Russia’s attempts to sow discord in the 2016 presidential election, they said. The activity represents the first known example of alleged Chinese-related actors targeting Americans with the apparent aim of encouraging them to attend real-world protests.

“They’re copying the Kremlin’s playbook,” said John Hultquist, vice president of analytics at Mandiant, a US-based cyber intelligence company.

According to a study released Wednesday by Mandiant and Alphabet’s Google Unit, thousands of accounts on dozens of social media platforms, including Facebook,

YouTube and Twitter – and online forums urged Asian Americans to take to the streets to protest racial injustice in the United States

In one example, the network encouraged Asian Americans to show up at an April 24 protest in New York City to “fight” against unfounded theories that the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic was deliberately designed in a Chinese lab, the researchers mentioned. The network then claimed success even though the protests did not appear to have taken place. Asian-American advocacy organizations said hate crimes against Asian Americans increased during the pandemic, a trend that led to the passage in May of bipartisan legislation in Congress intended to address the issue. problem.

Mandiant and Google have not directly attributed the activity to the Chinese government, a finding that often requires a profession of nation-state espionage, generally inaccessible to private tech companies.

But the activity is “almost certainly supported by a government sponsor, either directly through a government agency or a third party contractor,” Hultquist said. In addition to aligning with China’s strategic interests, the campaign appears to involve “significant resources, based on the increasing scale of this operation,” Hultquist said.

The Chinese government has largely denied targeting the United States with online influence or disinformation campaigns.

The campaign was not only large, but included messages in Russian, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese, as well as English and Chinese, the researchers said. The same network of accounts has also previously been linked by various Western security firms to efforts to undermine pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

The network has also previously pushed claims that the virus originated in the United States, promoted accounts that China has handled the pandemic exceptionally well, and sought to promote misinformation regarding the side effects of vaccines approved in the states. United – a tactic that the Biden administration has also linked in Russia.

Security personnel monitored the exterior of the Chinese Institute of Virology in Wuhan in February during a visit by the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus.


Photo:

Thomas Peter / Reuters

U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to conclusively determine how the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, split between theories that it reached humans via infected animals and that it was the result of ‘an accident in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. But agencies ruled that it was not developed as a biological weapon, and most spy agencies ruled that it was not genetically modified.

China has refused to cooperate with international investigations into the origins of the pandemic, leading US intelligence agencies to admit that they would not be able to identify the source of the virus.

Researchers from Mandiant and Google said the most recent outlines of the influencer campaign were ominous despite the failure to generate much engagement online or fuel actual protest events.

“Over the past couple of years we’ve seen this threat actor evolve, from the types of content he posts to the tactics he uses to amplify it,” said Shane Huntley, director of the threat analytics group. threats from Google. “The most important characteristics of this network remain its scale and persistence, despite low levels of engagement. “

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all of which have rules generally prohibiting fake profiles on their platforms, have all suspended accounts linked to the network, researchers said.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency took to social media in the 2016 election to inject disinformation into US political discourse, US intelligence agencies, former special adviser Robert Mueller and bipartisan findings say of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Russia has denied any interference in the 2016 elections.

This included using fake Facebook accounts to organize and fund real events that often involved both sides of the same issues of social division, including race relations, police brutality and religion. A 2017 Wall Street Journal analysis found that at least 60 rallies, protests, and marches were publicized or funded by eight Russia-backed Facebook accounts from Los Angeles to Washington, DC

Write to Dustin Volz at [email protected]

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