Army of bots in China trolled 30 social media platforms trying to stir up Asian American protests, research finds

Mandiant report

An online network with a pro-Chinese government stance was reportedly attempting to influence Americans and mobilize them into joining real-world protests. 

What researchers uncovered: According to a report published on Wednesday by cybersecurity firm Mandiant Threat Intelligence, the propaganda network allegedly ran bot accounts on 30 social media platforms and over 40 additional websites and forums. 

  • The bot network, which made posts in at least seven languages, apparently aimed to promote the Chinese government and influence American online users.
  • Mandiant first detected its movement in June 2019, which mainly “focused on discrediting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.”
  • At the time, the propaganda activities were limited to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The network has since expanded its scope and has also started using artificially generated images for account profile pictures.
  • The network reportedly began pushing stories critical of Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan and Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, multiple narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, and domestic U.S. political issues. 

Potential real-world repercussions: Research revealed that the online group encouraged Asian Americans to participate in a protest in New York City to “fight back” against theories that COVID-19 was engineered in a Chinese lab. While the rally did not take place on April 24, the network reportedly claimed success online.

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  • While Mandiant emphasized that there was “no evidence” that the online network’s activities would succeed, it expressed concern about the intention behind them. 
  • “This direct call for physical mobilization is a significant development compared to prior activity, potentially indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories,” the report noted. “We believe it is important to call attention to such attempts and for observers to continue to monitor for such attempts in future.”
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the researchers noted how similar the network’s efforts were to Russia’s activities during the 2016 presidential election. 
  • “They’re copying the Kremlin’s playbook,” John Hultquist, Mandiant’s vice president of analysis, was quoted as saying. 
  • While the report did not directly attribute the network to the Chinese government, Hultquist said the activity is “almost certainly supported by a government sponsor, either directly through a government agency or a third-party contractor.”
  • Hultquist pointed out that the campaign not only advances China’s interests, but also appears to involve “significant resources, based on the growing scale of this operation.”
  • In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group head Shane Huntley shared that the company had been tracking the network’s operation for the past two years, noting the posts are often removed immediately after receiving only a small amount of engagement online.

Featured Image via Jason Leung on Unsplash

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