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China is Involved in a Global Digital Propaganda Campaign

According to an analysis by the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, at least 72 fake news sites in 11 languages routinely insulted the West and retaliated against criticism of China.

 

According to research published Thursday, a Chinese marketing agency hosted a ring of at least 72 fake news sites in 11 languages with associated phony social media profiles that propagated Chinese government talking points.

 

The sites were hosted on internet infrastructure controlled by a Chinese marketing business, Shanghai Haixun Technology, according to Mandiant, the company that prepared the report.

 

Mandiant, a digital intelligence agency, has linked a Chinese public relations business to what it believes is a covert misinformation operation being carried out on hundreds of its news websites.

 

 

Although distinct from the Dragonbridge IO campaign previously observed by Mandiant, HaiEnergy appears to be using similar techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs), passing off what the cyber-research firm calls “inauthentic websites” as legitimate news outlets in more than ten languages, including English, Chinese, French, and Arabic.

 

As with Dragonbridge, HaiEnergy appears to be leveraging controversial Western individuals and even inventing evidence to back its assertions in order to promote favorable views of China.

 

Though Mandiant has linked Shanghai Haixun Technology to HaiEnergy, it is unclear whether the worldwide public relations agency is behind the effort, which is aimed at audiences in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

 

“While we do not presently have enough information to identify the extent to which Haixun is participating with, or even aware of, HaiEnergy, our research shows that the campaign has at least exploited Haixun services and infrastructure to host and disseminate content,” Mandiant stated.

 

According to the Shanghai Haixun website, the firm provides Chinese clients with the ability to have their talking points published on news websites. It claims to have customers covered in English-language news publications such as The Associated Press and Reuters in more than 40 languages and 140 countries.

 

The revelation adds to a growing series of examples of Chinese misinformation campaigns, many of which have failed to acquire momentum. Dakota Cary, a China specialist with the cybersecurity firm Krebs-Stamos Organization, said the ring of news sites looked to be a poor attempt by a pro-China group to influence Western discourse.

 

The Mandiant effort is another evidence of China’s inability to alter cultural narratives through fabricated tales and documentation.

 

In at least one instance, the campaign appears to have used forgery to defame an anthropologist.

 

Adrian Zenz, who has done extensive study on China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

 

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Outspoken supporters targeted

Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and Christian fundamentalist who has accused China of cultural genocide against the Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang province, is one of HaiEnergy’s main targets, according to Mandiant.

 

HaiEnergy is ready to go to great lengths to shift Western public opinion against Zenz, using what Mandiant says is a phony Twitter identity named “Jonas Drosten” to post screenshots of what appear to be fraudulent letters implying Zenz is on the payroll of the US government.

 

A closer examination of one of the letters by Cybernews reveals grammatical flaws and strange grammar that imply it was manufactured.

 

“According to the tweet and one of the letters, Zenz got financial backing from US Senator Marco Rubio and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon,” Mandiant explained. “The other two letters suggested that the financial support came from Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation grants provided to Zenz in 2020 and 2021.”

 

The statements themselves do not appear to be that far-fetched, but closer examination of one of the letters by Cybernews reveals grammatical faults and strange phrasing that suggest it may have been faked.

 

The purported Rubio-Zenz letter starts, “it has been a tremendous joy visiting you last week in Washington,” lacking the capital that should indicate the beginning of a sentence. Rubio allegedly adds at the conclusion of the letter, “I’m a wonderful sponsor to you, along with my dear buddy Bannon,” referring to the controversial former White House advisor by his surname despite the strong relationship implied by the phrase. “Please do not hesitate [sic] to contact me for any assistance,” the letter concludes.

 

Swiss Zeitung cites the Jonas Drosten persona – identified by Mandiant as one of 72 sites hosted by Haixun – as a “new Twitter account” who has “exposed” that Zenz got two payments, “$275,000” in 2019 and “again 300,000 [sic]” in 2020. Drosten is described as a “former colleague” of “data abuser” Zenz by Swiss Zeitung, however this assertion does not appear to be supported.

 

While Mandiant stated that the HaiEnergy campaign had little success and essentially served as a “echo chamber” of opinion, its findings suggest that agencies loyal to Chinese interests are becoming increasingly adept at using divisive Western figures to provoke dissent and, at the very least, try to steer global public opinion in its favor.

 

Ingenious but ineffectual

 

China’s readiness to leverage the West’s volatile political landscape to show its own system in a favorable light indicates intellectual adroitness – but in terms of execution, Mandiant argues it has yet to accomplish any noteworthy impact.

 

“We notice that, despite Haixun’s promised skills and worldwide reach, there is at least some evidence to suggest HaiEnergy failed to create meaningful engagement,” it added. “Despite having a huge number of followers, the political messages promoted by inauthentic accounts associated with this campaign did not acquire traction.” This lack of external amplification, similar to what we saw with Dragonbridge, hampered the campaigns’ potential to break out, basically establishing an echo chamber.”

Mandiant contends that the IO infrastructure itself is more interesting than its usefulness thus far since it shows that outsourcing this function to other parties, or “IO for hire,” might become a trend.

 

“Despite having a significant number of followers, the political messages promoted by inauthentic accounts associated with this campaign did not achieve much momentum.”

 

Analyst for digital intelligence at Mandiant

“Meta testified about an increase in the use of such firms, which have been used to lower the barrier to entry for some threat actors and to obfuscate the identities of more sophisticated ones,” Mandiant said, citing testimony by Facebook at its Congress hearing last year as evidence to support this claim.

 

Haixun is a public relations agency that provides services in over 40 languages to over 100 nations, accounting for almost half of the world’s state territory. The “positive energy packages” are supposed to correspond with Xi Jinping’s era-defining emphasis on “messages favorably presenting the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese Government, and its policies.”

 

“Among their most notable offerings are Europe and US Positive Energy package, which includes content creation ostensibly aimed at English-speaking audiences, and the Positive Energy Project Edition, which focuses on the production of tailor-made videos, promotion of custom content through ‘high-quality media resources,’ and campaign impact monitoring,” Mandiant said.

 

Whatever the implications of such initiatives and the depth of Haixun’s link with HaiEnergy, one thing is clear: China is trying, by way or by crook, to catch up to the West in terms of digital media expertise.

 

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