- Huge disinformation campaign ran for almost five years, study shows
- Network blackened reputation of Chinese, Russians, Iranians
- Agents used AI to generate photos of fake humans for Facebook and other media
- Falsified accounts pushed stories in tandem with US govt media VOA, RFE and others
A TORRENT OF DISINFORMATION about the Chinese and other communities painted as enemies of the Western allies ran for almost five years on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter, researchers reported on Wednesday.
“These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies,” said the shocking study by the Stanford Internet Observatory and the research company Graphika. [Click here to download a PDF of the report.]
The sophisticated system originated from the U.S. and the U.K., the study said. The perpetrators worked in tandem with groups which presented themselves as news organizations, but were really partner assets, or even major U.S. government operations such as Voice of America and the Radio Free Asia group, which includes Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and others.
Facebook and Twitter said they had taken down the sham accounts.
ASSETS FOCUSED ON CHINA
The massive operation “used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives” the study said.
“Two assets concentrated on China and the treatment of Chinese Muslim minorities, particularly the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province,” the report said.
For example, researchers noted that one Twitter account said it operated on behalf of the U.S. military but also posed as an Iraqi individual sending tweets from his home country.
The number of techniques used by the operations was remarkable, as was the length of time it ran before being discovered. The study is called: “Unheard Voice: Evaluating five years of pro-Western covert influence operations.”
a) Narrative creators made multiple fake personas with AI-generated faces to appear as authentic human beings. These appeared as accounts of “real people” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other media;
b) Narrative creators posed as journalists running independent media outlets;
c) Narrative creators made memes and short videos (for sharing on Tiktok, Instagram and others);
d) Narrative creators ran hashtag campaigns across platforms;
e) Narrative creators launched online petitions on “change” style sites known for “human rights” campaigns.
The players had “an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms” indicating a high level, well-organized operation to deceive. This enabled agents to back up false narratives by quoting each other: they backed up false news with quotes from what seemed to be small news operations or even large ones, like Voice of America, to promote a pro-west, anti-east narrative.
EXPLOITED SYMPATHY FOR WOMEN
Sham media outlets used the theme of women’s rights to create negativity towards non-western groups, the report said.
“For example, the Shestigrannik Facebook page repeatedly accused Russia and China of ignoring the Taliban’s ethnic cleansing of Afghan minorities and mistreatment of women,” the researchers said.
Agents sometimes created posts in Russian or other Central Asian languages, the researchers said. The one on the left, above, revives a long debunked allegation about organ-harvesting in China, and the one on the right paints China as the power behind Russian aggression.
While there were cases of some agents creating accounts which failed to win many followers, or were not widely shared, in other instances they succeeded in producing material which spread or went viral.
FOCUS ON CHINA
“A small cluster of assets within the Central Asia group focused almost exclusively on China,” the study said.
“These accounts—a fake persona and sham media outlet—mainly focused on the genocide of Uighurs and Muslim minorities in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. Posts described alleged organ trafficking, forced labor, sexual crimes against Muslim women, and suspicious disappearances of ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang. The assets also posted about the Chinese Communist Party’s poor treatment of women in the country and often framed these stories around news about domestic violence.”
DANGER TO THE WORLD
Other assets in the sham network painted an image of China imperilling the world. They “asserted that Chinese authoritarianism and financial imperialism threatened Central Asia and other regions of the world,” the researchers said.
“The assets frequently referred to China’s cooperation with Russia, especially on military issues, and said Beijing should be held responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because the CCP had secretly supplied the Kremlin with weapons. The group rebuked China for buying stolen Ukrainian grain from Russia and predicted that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine would precipitate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”
Western agents created petitions such as the one above, pretending to be people in Central Asia demanding that Kyrgyzstan curbs Chinese influence in the country, the study showed. The petitions were shared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Agents’ petitions were sometimes shared on a well known U.S. human rights activism platform called Avaaz, and promoted by Radio Liberty, a partner of Radio Free Asia: these are groups which present themselves as journalists, while actually being arms of the U.S. government.
In reality, China has good relationships with Kyrgyzstan and have been having lengthy talks towards building a “New Eurasian Land Bridge”, which will be a convenient transport path from East and Southeast Asia to Central and Western Asia, Northern Africa and Europe. The plan is to create prosperity through improved infrastructure that creates opportunities for trade.
For decades, a key technique of western intelligence forces has been to announce exactly what they are doing in the media – but ascribe it to “the enemy”. So there have been numerous false allegations of Chinese interference with politics in the U.S., while the truth was that the U.S. had massive operations interfering in politics in Chinese communities, particularly in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
The existence of an artificial Western narrative is rarely acknowledged—and even more rarely confronted. China-friendly voices are seen being removed from Twitter frequently. But the other way round?
Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told the New York Times: “It’s the first time we’ve seen a pro-U.S. foreign influence operation taken down by Twitter and Meta.”
Another remarkable aspect of the study was its revelation of how culturally wide the false narrative dissemination operation was. Just a few days ago, the New York Times printed a long feature bemoaning the ability of the west to control the discourse outside the Anglosphere.
Yet the new study reveals that the western narrative operation functioned in at least seven non-English languages on global social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, and also on allegedly “secure” operations such as Telegram, and even on popular non-Western networks VK and Odnoklassniki, run from Russia.
The report, dramatic as it was, received relatively little coverage internationally. There were pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post reporting the publication of the study, but without follow-up. Some media mentioned the report but played it down. Cyberwire headlined their report: “Not all coordinated inauthenticity is Russian”.
But even if there is no change in the narrative carried by the mainstream media, critics still welcomed the study. A Twitter user who has been banned three times for questioning the western narrative said: “This is just one more nail in the coffin of the narrative’s credibility, and that’s a good thing.”
Image at the top by Timon Studler/ Unsplash