How An Anti-China Website Became a Megaphone for Election Misinformation
Last October, visitors to the recently-launched GNews website would have seen headlines about China-related issues including Uyghur detention facilities, Hong Kong protests, and the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist sites. The site, which is affiliated with a wealthy Chinese businessman who has been living in exile for the last several years, has stated in articles that its mission is to expose corruption in the Chinese government and topple the Chinese Communist Party.
Visitors to the website today, however, are met with a stream of conspiracy theories involving presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family, lobbing far-flung allegations of incest, child trafficking, and rape.
GNews is one of many publications that has transformed itself into a loudspeaker for political misinformation in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, apparently as a way to build an audience that might be amenable to its ideas. But at the same time, GNews has embraced tools, techniques, and people that set it apart from similar operations. For example, the outlet is tied to two tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that solicits donations from readers, and has used a network of fake social media accounts to amplify its articles.
In mid-October, Recorded Future cyber threat intelligence analyst Charity Wright noticed that GNews was becoming a hub on social media for posting what it called “shocking information” related to a hard drive that supposedly belonged to Hunter Biden, the Democratic nominee’s son. But more than 200 accounts that were amplifying those messages displayed bot-like behavior, according to open-source tools that analyze the likelihood that an account is automated. The network showed clear signs of a nascent influence operation, Wright said.
In the course of reporting this story, Twitter suspended GNews’ main account for violating the social media company’s platform manipulation and spam policy. A Twitter representative said that the company uses auto-detection technology and human review to identify behavior that attempts to undermine the public conversation, and that its investigation into the matter will continue.
The operation is notable as election officials and social media companies try to crack down on influence operations aimed at swaying voters. In 2018, the Justice Department charged 13 Russian nationals for conspiring to interfere in the 2016 election—the 37-page indictment cited efforts to wage “information warfare against the United States” using social media “to sow political discord,” according to court documents.
But while GNews appears to have borrowed some tactics of foreign influence operations, it illustrates the challenges of combating misinformation that’s spread by private companies without links to foreign governments. Few details are available about GNews on its website, but it is closely linked to exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, who also goes by Miles Guo. Guo fled to the U.S. in 2014 amid numerous accusations of wrongdoing in China including bribery and fraud—which he has denied—and has become a vocal critic of China’s Communist Party.
In recent years, Guo partnered with former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon to launch media companies that strongly oppose the CCP. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that the FBI has been investigating Guo and the funds he used to build media properties in the U.S. for more than six months. Federal and state authorities are also investigating GTV Media Group, a media company linked to the two men that raised more than $300 million in a private offering, according to an August WSJ report. Shortly after that story published, Bannon was arrested on Guo’s $35 million yacht for unrelated fraud charges, The New York Times reported.
GNews has two main sections on its homepage devoted to Guo and Bannon, and writes about the two men regularly. Multiple emails sent to addresses listed on GNews’ website, as well as two affiliated nonprofits—the Rule of Law Foundation III and the Rule of Law Society IV—were either blocked or not responded to. According to IRS documents, the Rule of Law Foundation III and the Rule of Law Society IV were given tax-exempt status last September and August, respectively, which is around the same time that GNews began posting stories.
Most early content featured on the site was aggregation from news outlets such as the Associated Press, The Guardian, and The New York Times, as well as video briefings from Guo, according to a review of archived stories. Much of the focus was on mainstream criticism of how the Chinese government was oppressing minorities and silencing dissidents. In recent weeks, however, the site has transformed into a stream of sensational anti-Biden news that gets amplified by bots and picked up by other fringe websites.
“It’s different than just a smear campaign—hundreds of bot accounts are coordinated to spread this disinformation on social media,” Wright said. “If this were a foreign threat, it would be all over the news.”
Although Twitter has taken steps to curb GNews on the platform, the site is still trying to find ways to amplify its stories. In late October, GNews posted a story about how Guo was advocating for users to sign up for Gab, a social network known for its far-right userbase.
Adam Janofsky is the founding editor-in-chief of The Record by Recorded Future. He previously was the cybersecurity and privacy reporter for Protocol, and prior to that covered cybersecurity, AI, and other emerging technology for The Wall Street Journal.