U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Nisos uncovered the existence of a network of pro-China accounts targeting Latin American audiences, designed to bolster the country’s image and status, Time magazine reported in mid-July. This operation is part of the continued expansion of Chinese influence in the region, to consolidate its position as the main regional ally and trading partner.
Time reports that on May 31, three accounts from the X platform (formerly known as Twitter), which focus on news in the region — Hoy Chile, Hoy Costa Rica, and Hoy Paraguay — published identical stories in Spanish with the same photograph showing three smiling astronauts announcing that China sent a civilian into space for the first time.
Two days later, these same accounts simultaneously published a story touting China’s 5G technology, followed by another highlighting China’s first near-zero energy building.
Nisos’ report suggests the accounts are run by the same operator. These accounts could be the first steps in a broader Chinese state-backed influence operation to create favorable narratives about China, the report indicated.
It also said that these accounts were set up to circumvent Twitter’s state media tagging policy, which previously flagged government-linked accounts. However, by not linking directly to the source, these accounts cannot be identified.
“Part of the success of these types of campaigns is precisely to go unnoticed. Hence the importance of professional, rigorous, and credible journalism, with the capacity to investigate, denounce, and disseminate,” Werner Zitzmann, executive director of the Colombian Media Association, told Diálogo on August 8.
Sandra Quincoses, an intelligence analyst at Nisos and author of the report, told Time that China has had free reign to “experiment with different strategies” in Latin America’s information space that it could implement elsewhere later down the line. “They are playing the long game,” Quincoses said.
According to her, the network of pro-China accounts is linked to China News Service, the country’s second-largest state-run news agency, which operates several international bureaus. Its content is then reposted by Chinese diplomats and Latino accounts sympathetic to Chinese interests.
Chinese officials, including diplomats around the world, saturate social media to spread their political views internationally. The latest campaign was aimed at directly influencing the political debate in the United States, The New York Times reported in April.
China’s objectives in Latin America are in line with the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) vision to achieve “China’s dream of a rich, powerful, and secure country.” In the region, they seek to secure access to raw materials, products, and markets that benefit the Chinese economy, Journal of the Americas, a magazine of the U.S. Air Force reported.
According to Zitzmann, in Latin America, which has abundant resources and populations that are lagging culturally and economically, “this creates fertile ground to influence over the sovereignty of countries in the region,” he said.
Chinese state media warps the narrative to portray the country and its government as supportive, compassionate, and collaborative, says Central American think tank Expediente Abierto. These media outlets are dedicated to disseminating CCP propaganda, and their employees act in the interests of their communist party, U.S. platform ShareAmerica reported.
The network of pro-China accounts is part of the United Front strategy, which seeks to promote Beijing’s interests through various influence operations aimed at shaping global opinions about China, led by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the CCP’s intelligence arm, Time reported.
UFWD uses three types of tactics to propagate the regime’s distorted official narrative both at home and abroad: neutralize criticism of the party, spread positive propaganda about its management, and seduce foreign elites into championing CCP interests in their nations, Spanish think tank China Watch Institute indicated.
The UFWD’s tactics date back to the Russian Revolution. The concept is clear: form a coalition of like-minded or mutually interested parties to defeat a more powerful adversary, even if these allies do not perfectly share the same ideology, China Watch Institute explained.
Chinese influence campaigns can have a significant impact on the opinions of Latin American audiences. “The secret to these processes, in addition to a well-constructed narrative, is perseverance, as with any indoctrination plan,” Zitzmann said. “When audiences have low levels of training and education and are characterized by their emotionalism, as is the case in most of our countries, these conditions, together with significant social and economic deficiencies and insufficiencies, make them ideal targets for this type of campaign.”
This network could be used for espionage by Chinese government agencies. According to Nisos, the applications connected to the website disclosed permissions to collect personal information from subscribers and monitor their accounts. “This allows China to micro-manage narratives and obtain data from dissidents abroad,” Nisos said.
Beijing successfully copies information warfare tactics used by Russia and now seeks to extend its online surveillance apparatus to the global arena. It intends to influence and control global narratives in real time, which represents an ambitious and unprecedented gamble, U.S. magazine Foreign Policy reported on July 30.
“The problem of the network of accounts generates anguish without a clear solution,” Zitzmann said. A radical shift is needed to set aside particular interests and cultures and focus on a collective agenda that addresses global problems, such as influence campaigns. “This idea, however, seems utopian,” he concluded.