Pro-China information campaign used fake websites to spread propaganda: Mandiant
Dozens of news websites operating in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and elsewhere that claim to be independent are part of a massive propaganda effort to “disseminate content strategically aligned with the political interests of the People’s Republic of China,” according to a new report from cybersecurity firm Mandiant.
On Thursday, the firm announced that it had detected at least 72 bogus sites and several fake social media accounts that are part of a wide-reaching information operation that publishes harshly critical stories on topics including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. Mandiant said it believes the sites are linked to the public relations firm Shanghai Haixun Technology Co., and have dubbed the campaign “HaiEnergy.”
Some accounts tied to the campaign have also published fabricated content, such as letters allegedly sent by Senator Marco Rubio’s office to the anthropologist Adrian Zenz, a prominent critic of China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In one tweet from a now-suspended account, three images of the fabricated letters attempted to “smear” anthropologist Adrian Zenz by suggesting that he received funding from Rubio and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, as well as the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Several websites and other social media accounts linked to the disinformation campaign “promoted the same letters and mentioned the Jonas Drosten Twitter persona” that shared the fabricated images. Mandiant said it believes Jonas Drosten to be a made-up character.
The Chinese Embassy in the U.S. and Haixun did not respond to a request for comment.
The operation promoted a wide range of content attacking opponents of China’s government, and primarily took aim at the U.S. and its allies. Websites included names like “Austria Weekly,” “Focus on Russia,” “Egypt Daily,” and “Jakarta Globe.”
A Ukrainian-language article, for example, claimed that numerous Ukranians had died as a result of experiments run in U.S. biolabs. Some sites criticized Chinese virologist Yan Limeng, who fled to the U.S. after suggesting that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese government laboratory, and claimed that she contributes to Asian hate crimes in the U.S.
Although the operation appears to be large and sophisticated, researchers pointed out that it hasn’t been much of a success.
“Despite the capabilities and global reach advertised by Haixun, there is at least some evidence to suggest HaiEnergy failed to generate substantial engagement,” Mandiant researchers said. “Most notably, despite a significantly large number of followers, the political posts promoted by inauthentic accounts we attribute to this campaign failed to gain much traction outside of the campaign itself.”
Nathaniel Brubaker, the director of Mandiant’s intelligence team, wrote on Twitter that HaiEnergy is distinct from another recently-observed Chinese information campaign known as Dragonbridge. Although both promoted similar narratives and ultimately formed echo chambers, Dragonbridge used social media accounts across authentic platforms to post comments and photos, while HaiEnergy primarily relies on inauthentic websites and accounts.
“This lack of amplification from external sources, not unlike what we typically observed with Dragonbridge, limited the campaigns’ ability to break out, essentially forming an echo chamber,” researchers wrote.
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.