Experts are seeing an ‘explosion of activity’ by a pro-China group to mobilise physical protests in the US and spread disinformation, according to a report.
A misinformation campaign on social media “in support of Chinese government interests” and exploiting divisions over Covid-19 has expanded to new languages and platforms, according to the report by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and experts at Google.
The report said the operation was identified in 2019 as running hundreds of accounts in English and Chinese. They were aimed at discrediting the Hong Kong pro-democracy mass protests.
The campaign has now reportedly expanded its mission and spread from Twitter, Facebook and Google to “thousands of handles on dozens of sites around the world.”
John Hultquist, vice president of the Mandiant Threat Intelligence told CNN that experts have observed an “explosion of activity across the world” and the move to mobilise physical protests in the US “demonstrates they are a very serious threat.”
The report says: “This direct call for physical mobilisation is a significant development compared to prior activity, potentially indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories.” It added: “While this attempt did not appear to achieve any success, we believe it is critical that observers continue to monitor for such attempts in case greater degrees of organic engagement are later realised by the network.”
However, researchers have said that the accounts on the main US platforms and major networks elsewhere such as the Russia-based VKontakte “have gained little interaction with authentic users.”
Mr Hultquist said: “A lot of it is tweeting into the void.”
In April for example, experts saw thousands of fake accounts calling on Asian Americans to protest racial injustice in the US and disinformation about the virus origins.”
Experts have found no evidence to indicate that these posts were successful, the report says that “it does provide early warning that the actors behind the activity may be starting to explore, in however limited a fashion, more direct means of influencing the domestic affairs of the US.”
Shane Huntley, Director of Google’s Threat Analysis Group said: “Over the past two years, we have seen this threat actor evolve, from the types of content they publish to the tactics they use to amplify it. However, the most significant features of this network remain its scale and persistence, in spite of low engagement levels. That is why we’ve taken an aggressive approach to identifying and removing disinformation from this network.”
He added: “We anticipate they will continue to experiment to drive higher engagement and encourage others in the community to continue tracking this actor, shedding light on their operations and taking action against them.”