DOJ charges 34 with operating Chinese gov’t troll farm that harassed dissidents
The Justice Department announced charges Monday against 34 people involved in a task force used to spread disinformation and harass Chinese dissidents.
Officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York announced during a press conference three different cases centered on efforts by the Chinese government to target people in the U.S. critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
The 34 people linked to the disinformation and harassment campaign are allegedly part of a task force called the “912 Special Project Working Group” and were charged with conspiracy to transmit foreign threats and conspiracy to commit interstate harassment.
In an 89-page document from the FBI seen by the Wall Street Journal, the 34 people are accused of operating a troll farm, and masked their identities online to make it seem like opinions were coming from U.S. citizens.
The group allegedly used accounts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread the messages – which covered a range of topics including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the origins of COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd.
“The charges you've heard about today reveal a series of brazen criminal schemes directed by [China’s] Ministry of Public Security. One of the complaints unsealed today shows that 34 MPS officials have been charged with conducting a massive campaign to use social media to harass and threaten Chinese dissidents, amplify division among Americans and undermine confidence in our democratic processes,” said David Sundberg, assistant director in charge at the FBI.
“The officers worked with Beijing's MPS Bureau and were assigned to an elite task force called the 912 special project working group. The purpose of the group is to target Chinese dissidents located throughout the world, including in the United States. They attempted to use the far reaching campaign to spread their narratives touching many aspects of American life. And they tried to recruit others to unwittingly participate in this harassment by disseminating propaganda of the Chinese government.”
Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the task force operated an internet troll farm that created thousands of fake online personas which were used “in a coordinated plot to harass, disparage, and threaten dissidents and activists throughout the world.”
Peace noted that among several different methods used, the actors would disrupt virtual meetings held by Chinese dissidents by interfering with the technology platforms used.
Peace said the task force used several methods to disrupt dissident activity, including drowning out a video conferencing event with loud music and vulgar screams.
“The MPS subjected Chinese dissidents living here in the United States to the authoritarian rule of the PRC. That is unacceptable. In addition to threatening and harassing Chinese dissidents, the MPS officers used their fake online personas to spread official Chinese government propaganda and narratives to counter and overwhelm the dissidents pro-democracy speech,” Peace said.
“The MPS officers on the task force also used their fake online personas to spread disinformation. Among other items, they suggested the weakness of U.S. democracy and foreign policy, sought to sow political divisions in U.S. national elections, and convey conspiracy theories regarding the U.S. government's alleged responsibility for the origins of the COVID 19 pandemic.”
Another DOJ official, David Newman, implied that the group “conspired with an employee of a U.S.-based technology company to compromise the privacy of online virtual meetings which were being used by attendees as a modern day means of public protest and the exercise of freedom of assembly.”
That coincided with the third case announced on Monday, which revolved around 10 others charged for their role in attempting to censor the users of an unnamed U.S. tech platform from talking about sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and more.
The new filing builds on previous charges issued in 2020 against a China-based employee of an unnamed tech company that worked with Chinese government agents to remove content critical of the government of China.
The person was accused of fabricating evidence of terms of service violations in order to end virtual meetings critical of the Chinese government and suspend or cancel user accounts critical of government policies.
While the Justice Department declined to say if any of the 34 people involved in the troll farm were detained, at least two people were arrested after being accused of setting up a Chinese police station in New York and harassing a California resident.
The cases announced on Monday are part of a larger response to the growing outrage at the Chinese government’s attempts to police the Chinese diaspora around the world. More than 100 undercover Chinese police stations have been discovered across the globe, raising alarms among leaders in several countries.
China has defended the outposts, arguing that they are simply meant to help Chinese people conduct administrative tasks like applying for driver’s licenses.
Jonathan Greig is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.