War of Words

Fake networks and China’s online smear campaign

A major report illustrates the depth of Beijing’s deception strategy on social media

A state-sponsored network is pushing the Communist Party’s alternative agenda in a move to discredit critics of China’s authoritarian regime.

More than “350 fake social media profiles” were used online to spread disinformation by targeting individuals and western democracies.

In a report released by the Centre for Information Resilience in the United Kingdom, the Chinese trolls also used “fake AI-generated profile photographs” in posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“The aim of the network appears to be to delegitimize the West by amplifying pro-Chinese narratives,” Benjamin Strick, the author of the CIR study, said as reported by the BBC.

The facts:

  • The Centre for Information Resilience is an independent, non-profit social enterprise dedicated to exposing influence operations.
  • Many of the fake accounts repeatedly denied human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
  • At least one million Uighur Muslims have been held in internment camps.
  • Allegations of torture, sexual abuse and “genocide,” have been levelled against Beijing by human rights groups.
  • In response, President Xi Jinping’s administration and the trolls have called the accusations “lies fabricated by the United States and the West.”

What was said: “Some profiles were created to post original content, while others only shared, liked and commented on those original posts, to help them reach a wider audience,” the BBC reported.

Designed for stealth: “This kind of activity is often referred to as ‘astroturfing’ because it is designed to create the appearance of a grass-roots campaign,” it said.

Reaction to the news: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube responded by saying they had removed or terminated accounts on their platforms.

Shades of deja vu: Last year, an investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica showed how China launched a massive censorship campaign to “muzzle dissenting voices” during the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan in 2019.

Divide and rule: “At a time when digital media is deepening social divides in Western democracies, China is manipulating online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s consensus,” The New York Times and ProPublica said.

Troll and trouble: “To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with Party-line blather, and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices,” The New York Times and ProPublica added.

Delve deeper: The sheer scale of these Beijing-orchestrated disinformation campaigns comes at a time when relations between China and the United States and its allies have rapidly deteriorated. But it is hardly a surprise as China’s state-run media have been at the forefront of strangling the truth.

Joined at the hip: Like all major Chinese companies, the media answer to Beijing. “All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” President Xi said as reported by Xinhua, the official news agency of the Communist Party, in 2016.

Lies the new truth: Under a veil of deception, mainstream and social media have distorted the destruction of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and ignored and denied the suffering of Uighur Muslims held in detention camps.

China Factor comment: Yet another report has revealed the depth of the Party’s smear campaigns on social media platforms that are banned in China. Time to turn off the online oxygen of these state-sponsored windbags.

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