China Targeted U.S. With Fake Social Media

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Fanelli, James T. Areddy, and Aruna Viswanatha headlined “Chinese Security Unit Targeted U.S. With Fake Social-Media Scheme, Prosecutors Allege”:

Nearly three-dozen Chinese security officers wielded thousands of fake social-media personas from Beijing to discredit American policies and harass China’s critics, U.S. prosecutors charged in a complaint unveiled Monday.

In an 89-page document, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent detailed how a group of officers at the Ministry of Public Security, China’s domestic security agency, worked in recent years to amplify messages on behalf of Beijing while making them appear to come from a range of American voices, including a New York woman named “Susan Miller,” another in Wisconsin named “Julie Torres,” and a California man named “Bill Giao.”

The Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office, which brought the case, charged all the defendants with conspiracy to transmit foreign threats and conspiracy to commit interstate harassment. All the defendants are at large and believed to be overseas.

China’s Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaint. It has rejected similar allegations in the past.

The online personas developed by the group, known as the “912 Special Project Working Group,” don’t appear to have amassed more than a few dozen followers each, according to screenshots included in the complaint. But the officers appear to have been working extensively to surveil potential critics of Beijing and develop campaigns against them, according to the complaint.

One of those campaigns was against a high-profile businessman, Guo Wengui, who gained attention by lobbing corruption allegations at Beijing from a Manhattan penthouse, and was himself arrested last month and accused of orchestrating a $1 billion fraud. Mr. Guo isn’t named in the complaint but is identifiable by the details it includes.

The complaint provides an exhaustive account of how the Chinese cyber group operates, detailing the guidelines and instructions new members receive for creating fake Facebook and Twitter accounts and gaining followers. The complaint identifies security officers and provides pictures of them, including some of them at work in front of computers. It also details internal requests for laptop computers, television sets, bedding and towels for what the complaint describes as “on-duty preparation work.”

The activities described in the complaint, which appear to have gathered steam during the Covid-19 pandemic and looked to take advantage of political divisions with the U.S., highlight how Chinese authorities may have taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. In what U.S. authorities determined to be an orchestrated effort, Russian companies and citizens ran a social media campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election to push divisive messages within the U.S. and sow discord.

​Using Twitter and other services, the Chinese group used false online names “to disseminate and amplify messages as part of a broad effort to influence and shape public perceptions of the PRC government, the CCP and its leaders in the United States and around the world,” the complaint said, referring to the acronyms for the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party.​

Amid concern in China in August 2021 that World Health Organization and Biden administration scientists might not rule out the possibility Covid emerged from a Chinese laboratory, the group was charged with promoting an argument also made by China’s Foreign Ministry that in the interest of fairness, examinations should focus on labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland and the University of North Carolina, dubious arguments that the disease might have emerged first in the U.S.

Other pushes to create disinformation also cited in the complaint centered on the South China Sea and George Floyd, the Black man killed by a policeman on a Minneapolis street in May 2020. The group also amplified Russia’s messages about its Ukraine war effort and pushed views that higher prices in France were a result of Paris’s support of Kyiv.

The U.S. has increasingly detailed evidence of people working on behalf of Beijing while in the U.S., in particular to put pressure on enemies of China overseas, in what the FBI calls cases of “transnational repression.” It is a U.S. crime for an agent of a foreign government to stalk, intimidate or assault people in the U.S., according to an FBI website.

After the FBI in March 2022 charged five individuals for allegedly harassing political opponents of Beijing in the U.S. on behalf of the government, China’s Foreign Ministry said Washington was intent on smearing China. “The accusation of ‘transnational repression schemes’ is totally made out of thin air,” then spokesman Zhao Lijian said at the time. “The U.S. attempt to hype up ‘China threat’ and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”

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