The news of persecution against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the trade war with the US and the likely origin of the Covid-19 pandemic in China made the Asian country seek to improve its image abroad by all means.
While not revealing a direct link to the Chinese Communist Party, a report by the NGO Center for Information Resilience (CIR)and reported by the BBC denounces a centralized Internet propaganda effort that “distorts international perceptions on significant issues, elevates China’s reputation among its supporters, and discredits accusations against the Chinese government.”
The researchers raised a series of clues that point to the creation of false profiles on major social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and that they work together to boost information favorable to China, in English and Chinese, on issues such as the pandemic, human rights in Xinjiang and foreign conflicts.
The profiles, for example, feature bizarre cartoons depicting exiled Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui, Chinese physician Li-Meng Yan (who claimed the new coronavirus was created in a laboratory), and Steve Bannon, a former political strategist for Donald Trump.
In addition, controversial topics such as firearm ownership and racial issues are also used to attack the United States.
The network works with profiles created specifically to post original content, while others just share, like and comment on those posts to help reach a wider audience. The profiles also show certain patterns that indicate non-human robot behavior.
There are even indications that the photos used in the profiles were created by artificial intelligence, with a method called StyleGAN that makes it difficult to identify that they are real photos that are tampered with.
The author of the report and Director of Investigations of the CIR, Benjamin Strick, stated that “although the content distributed bears a strong resemblance to the content seen in the accounts of representatives of the Chinese government and media linked to the State of China […], there is no indication of attribution”.
However, Strick points out that “the network’s goal seems to be to delegitimize the West, expanding pro-Chinese narratives.”
Ross Burley, co-founder and CEO of CIR, urges the companies involved to take action: “We urge the platforms mentioned in this report to investigate the network, formally show its attribution and take it down. It is important that those responsible for its existence are exposed.”