A Chinese disinformation campaign on social networks that was identified for the first time in 2019 has been significantly expanded recently, according to a new report by cyber defense company FireEye. The campaign that started with several hundred accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for the promotion of Chinese interests and the suppression of the democratic movement in Hong Kong has grown into tens of thousands of accounts on many sites worldwide.
"Since we began tracking the campaign in mid-2019, we have observed multiple shifts in its tactics, many of which have been reported on publicly elsewhere, including the use of artificially generated photos for account profile pictures and the promotion of a wide variety of narrative themes," the company's report said, pointing out several significant developments that occurred recently – first and foremost the increased amount of activity and attempts to cause upheaval within the U.S.
"The scope of activity, in terms of languages and platforms used, is far broader than previously understood," the researchers wrote. "Most reporting has highlighted English and Chinese-language activity occurring on the social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. However, we have now observed this pro-PRC activity taking place on 30 social media platforms and over 40 additional websites and niche forums, and in additional languages including Russian, German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese."
The campaign has also been observed on networks such as TikTok, Vimeo and Tumblr. The researchers pointed out that these statistics mean that the actors behind the network of accounts have significantly expanded their online footprint. The actors "appear to be attempting to establish a presence on as many platforms as possible to reach a variety of global audiences," the researchers wrote.
Another development is an attempt to cause unrest in the U.S. by physically mobilizing protesters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers noted that although they did not identify any indication that the online attempts led to any real-world activity, "this direct call for physical mobilization is a significant development compared to prior activity, potentially indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories."
In addition, the campaign is spreading a great amount of fake information in various languages regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming, among other things, that it appeared in the U.S. and Europe before China. When the researchers examined the level of the language in the posts, they found spelling and grammatical errors, another possible indication that they were authored by non-native speakers.
Last month, FireEye published a report in which it attributed offensive cyber activity against Israeli organizations to Chinese intelligence.
Fake news in German regarding the coronavirus, part of the campaign identified by FireEye researchers. The headline says "Coronavirus existed earlier in the US". Screenshot from the company website