In late August, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, dismantled a massive network of fake accounts associated with Chinese security forces, as well as the pro-China influence operation known as Spamouflage that promotes Beijing’s interests, according to an August 26 Meta cyberthreats report.
“Such propaganda exerts a strong influence on public perception and political opinion,” Luis Fleischman, a sociology and political science professor at Palm Beach State University in Florida, told Diálogo on October 2. “Throughout history this tool has demonstrated its power to distort the perception of truth, using repetition and persuasion as its main weapons.”
Meta indicated that it removed some 7,700 Facebook accounts, 950 pages, 15 groups, and 15 Instagram accounts, which pushed positive comments about China and malicious criticism of the United States, as well as Western policies and detractors of the Chinese government, including journalists and researchers.
This investigation was initiated in response to public reports of activities targeting a human rights nongovernmental organizations in late 2022, leading to the discovery of a covert influence operation active on more than 50 online platforms and forums, spanning from social networks to blogs, the report detailed.
“It is the largest, albeit unsuccessful, covert influence operation we know of in the world,” Ben Nimmo, leader of Meta Global Threat Intelligence, told U.S.-based platform Voice of America.
This China-based network targeted various regions such as Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and global Chinese-speaking audiences, Nimmo said. Despite the deactivation of accounts, the network adapted by acquiring spam pages with inauthentic followers, focusing its efforts on Bangladesh, Brazil, and Vietnam.
Nimmo said the network shared identical content on multiple web platforms, including links, articles, and “personal” comments, despite being issued by hundreds of different accounts, suggesting centralized coordination. In several cases, serial numbers were used in comments, indicating possible copying from a list.
Meta also linked this network to the spam operation known as Spamouflage, the largest multi-platform covert influence operation it has been fighting since 2019. Despite China’s attempts at anonymity, Meta was able to identify “links to individuals connected to Chinese law enforcement.”
It also noted that the activities indicated a possible joint operation at a shared location, with distinctive work patterns: surges of activity in the morning and afternoon, Beijing time, meal breaks, and a final surge of activity at night.
When Spamouflage emerged in 2019, Meta says, it focused on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube platforms. However, as these platforms began to detect and block its spam activities, the operation shifted its focus to smaller platforms, such as local forums in Asia and Africa.
The scale of this alleged online campaign highlights China’s attempts to influence global narratives, underscoring its growing role as an aggressive player in the spread of disinformation, in step with countries such as Russia, noted the Japan-based Nikkei Asian Review.
“Even in totalitarian regimes like Russia, propaganda plays a crucial role in constructing realities perceived as true by the population,” Fleischman said. “One of the most effective tactics of propaganda is the constant repetition of messages, which can lead to a lie being perceived as truth over time.”
An example of this was revealed on July 11, when Time magazine reported the existence of a network of Twitter accounts promoting China’s image in Latin American countries, a testament to Beijing’s constant effort to expand its presence in the region, seeking to establish itself as a highly relevant ally.
In April, Google identified more than 100,000 accounts related to “a China-related spam influence network.” However, most of these accounts had few followers, as U.S.-based MIT Technology Review reported.
The intentions behind China’s social media activities are less obvious, as it may be planning long-term strategies. Although those behind these activities may be considered minor players today, it is important to take action before they acquire sufficient influence, similar to what Russia has achieved, MIT reported.
This phenomenon also manifests itself in the use of local figures by countries such as China, Russia, and Iran in their propaganda machine, Fleischman said. These local figures are used to spread propaganda messages, give them the appearance of legitimacy and spread misinformation to the benefit of these governments.
“The concern is that many people consume and accept these propagandistic narratives without questioning their veracity, highlighting the importance of addressing this problem in a world where state media and social networks facilitate the spread of propaganda and misinformation at an alarming rate,” he said.
Currently, China perceives the need to gain greater support in the Western world. Despite existing economic interdependence, they feel this is not enough, Fleischman continued. Their focus is on people and their perspectives, seeking to influence the way they think.
Meta continues to block malicious cyberdomains linked to infringing activities on its services, focusing on transparency and international collaboration to counter these efforts, which seek to manipulate public debate and spread disinformation. “Good for Meta for dismantling that Chinese network,” Fleischman concluded.