Pro-Chinese disinformation operation tries to exploit U.S. divisions of Covid, report says

The operation, which initially attempted to discredit pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, has grown into a “global campaign that works in seven languages, across at least 30 social media platforms and over 40 websites and forums, ”experts from Mandiant and Google say, noting parallels with the Russian disinformation campaign around the 2016 presidential election.

US officials believe the operation is linked to the Chinese government and are monitoring its progress, according to a source familiar with the situation. In the 2020 election, U.S. officials were monitoring whether the operation could be used to spread disinformation, but ultimately felt that the Chinese government was avoiding doing so because it did not want to elicit a response, the source added.

Months later, experts observed an “explosion of activity” around the world and the decision to provoke physical protests in the United States “shows that they pose a very serious threat,” the vice told CNN. -President of Mandiant Threat Intelligence, John Hulquist.

“This direct call for physical mobilization is an important development compared to the previous activity, potentially indicative of an emerging intention to motivate real activity outside Chinese territories,” the report said. “While this attempt did not appear to be successful, we believe it is essential that observers continue to monitor such attempts in case greater degrees of organic engagement are later achieved by the network.”

In April, for example, experts saw thousands of fake accounts calling on Asian Americans to protest racial injustice in the United States and “misinformation about the origins of the virus.” Although experts have found no evidence that these messages have been successful in mobilizing protesters, the report says “it provides an early warning that the actors behind the activity may begin to explore, even in ways limited, more direct means of influencing the internal affairs of the US. ”

While there has been limited engagement with these pro-China accounts, the massive reach of the operation shows that the players responsible have “significantly expanded their online footprint and appear to be attempting to establish a presence on as many platforms as possible to reach a variety of global audiences. “, According to the experts at Mandiant.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen this threat actor evolve, from the types of content he publishes to the tactics he uses to amplify it. However, the most important characteristics of this network remain its breadth and persistence, despite a low commitment. That’s why we’ve taken an aggressive approach to identifying and removing disinformation from this network, ”said Shane Huntley, director of Google’s Threat Analysis Group.

“We anticipate that they will continue to experiment to generate higher engagement and encourage other community members to continue to follow this actor, shed light on their operations and take action against them,” he said. he adds.

Cyber ​​espionage from China against the United States has increased since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, and Beijing has always sought to shape the global narrative through overt and covert means.

For months, Chinese authorities have openly disseminated false and misleading information about the virus and its origins.

But the United States and several of its European allies have also been more careful in attributing disinformation and other malicious cyber activity to China than to other state actors, namely Russia and Iran these days. last years.

Pressed on issue In May 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen denied claims that the EU watered down a report on coronavirus misinformation after coming under pressure from China.

While experts at Mandiant and Google say they haven’t seen these specific pro-China accounts delve into election-specific content so far, they have warned that the actors responsible may be bracing for a campaign of election. broader disinformation that could very well be carried out in a manner similar to Moscow’s campaign to meddle in the 2016 US election. with similar intent to what US intelligence agencies said was deployed by Moscow in the race from 2016.

Beijing is not the only American adversary linked to the sweeping online efforts to undermine trust in democratic institutions. German officials on Monday accused the Russian military intelligence agency GRU of being responsible for a hacking campaign targeting politicians ahead of Germany’s general elections in September. The same hacking group has also attacked U.S. allies such as Poland with fake NATO narratives, the researchers said.

CNN’s Sean Lyngaas contributed reporting.

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