Since the Hong Kong protests two years ago, Twitter and Facebook have traced a number of influence operations to China-linked actors. But a recent Facebook takedown operation found one covid-19 influence effort engaged with accounts directly linked to employees of Chinese state-run firms and government officials, a closer connection to Chinese state actors than the social media platform has so far described.
In August, the Swiss embassy in Beijing raised the alarm about a “Swiss” biologist, Wilson Edwards, whose claims that the US was putting pressure on World Health Organization scientists looking into the origins of covid-19 had become stories in Chinese state-run media. The embassy said it could find no actual Swiss citizen meeting Edwards’ description. Meta’s Dec. 1 report found (pdf) that a Facebook account for the “biologist that never was” was created on July 24, just 12 hours before it began posting its claims.
Soon, accounts connected to employees of Chinese state-run firms across about 20 countries, including Brazil, Kenya, and Indonesia, began engaging with the posts. “This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” Ben Nimmo, threat intelligence lead for Meta, wrote in the report
Some Chinese government officials also began interacting with the content less than an hour after it first went up.
Meta took down more than 500 Facebook accounts and 86 Instagram accounts linked to the campaign, which failed to attract more widespread attention.
“In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona,” said the report. “The operation brought together the original fake account, several hundred additional inauthentic accounts, and a cluster of authentic accounts, including those that belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies across four continents.”
Threat researchers also found links to employees based in mainland China for an information security firm called Sichuan Silence Information Technology. According to the Chengdu-based company’s website (link in Chinese), it provides technical support to government departments that include the public security bureau, cyber watchdog, and military.
The fake accounts in the campaign, which in several cases used Western personas, sought to spread the fake biologist’s posts by liking them and dropping links to them in London-focused Facebook groups, such as “London Marketplace.” Activity from the real accounts associated with the state-owned entity employees largely resembled the activity of the fake ones. But some of the real accounts also posted instructions on how to amplify the messaging better, and required people who shared the links to give feedback on the effect of their posts.
The origins of covid, whose first cases were detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, have proved fertile ground for conspiracy theories, often along the lines of geopolitical tensions. Early last year, Australia demanded a probe into the virus’s origins, and a Chinese diplomat has shared a conspiracy theory that the virus was brought to China by US personnel. So far, the source of the virus, whose origin theories include jumping from bats to humans via another species, as well as the possibility of a lab leak, remains a mystery.
A WHO report into the issue published in March was inconclusive, and scientists on the team said China had shared insufficient data from the earlier cases in Wuhan. The organization has faced calls, including from the US, for a new, more in-depth inquiry, but it is unclear it will take place.