In this photo, the flag logo of the People’s Republic of China appears on a smartphone screen on July 25, 2022. A Chinese marketing firm hosted a ring of at least 72 fake news websites in 11 languages with corresponding fake social media personalities that pushed Chinese government talking points, according to a survey published on Thursday.
Budrul Chukrut | Lightrocket | Getty Images
A Chinese marketing firm hosted a ring of at least 72 fake news websites in 11 languages with corresponding fake social media personalities that pushed the Chinese government into talking points, according to research published on Thursday.
NBC News has seen the English-language websites, which hide their ownership and authors. Their articles often criticized the US and the West and appeared to try to smooth over concerns in those countries, such as China curbing democracy in Hong Kong and placement of ethnic minority Uyghur citizens in detention camps.
According to Mandiant, the company that compiled the report, the sites were hosted on web infrastructure owned by a Chinese marketing company, Shanghai Haixun Technology.
It is unclear who would have organized the campaign, and neither a spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington nor Shanghai Haixun Technology responded to requests for comment. According to Shanghai Haixun’s Websitethe company offers its clients in China the opportunity to publish their talking points on news sites in more than 40 languages and in more than 140 countries, and is proud to have acquired clients covered by English-language news outlets such as the Associated Press and Reuters.
The report adds to a growing list of examples of disinformation operations is attributed in China, many of which failed to gain much traction. Dakota Curry, a China analyst at the Krebs-Stamos Group, a cybersecurity firm, said the news site circuit appeared to be a clumsy attempt by a pro-China group to influence the Western conversation.
“The campaign observed by Mandiant is another example of how China is unable to influence cultural narratives with authentic reports and fake documents,” said Cary, who was not involved in Mandiant’s research.
In at least one instance, the campaign appeared to have used forged letters to discredit an anthropologist, Adrian Zenz, who has published important research about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
The letters appear to have first surfaced online in December, when photos of them were posted by the Twitter account of a person called Jonas Drosten. That account has since been suspended, although Google has a hidden version of the account that is still visible.
A Twitter spokesperson told NBC News that it had suspended multiple accounts associated with the campaign, but declined to share details.
All three letters are to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the Washington think tank where Zenz works. The first, purportedly from the office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., thanks Zenz and appears to tie him to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, referred to simply as “Bannon.” The other two appeared to show that the foundation paid Zenz more than half a million dollars for his research.
Representatives from Rubio’s office and the foundation confirmed to NBC News that the letters are fake. However, they were treated as authentic in several articles about Zenz in the Shanghai Haixun news ring. China Daily, the country’s main state-sponsored English news agency, also wrote an article treating them as genuine in May. Neither China Daily nor the author of this article, Mark Pinkstone, responded to requests for comment.
The use of fake US government letters and fake social media profiles echoes an earlier whistleblowing operation by another cybersecurity firm, Recorded Future. attributed to Russia. In that campaign, the fake letters appeared designed to erode support for NATO, the US-led military alliance.
Zenz is a common target for Chinese officials. Last year, Chinese Communist Party propaganda chief Xu Guixiang held a Press conference devoted to trying to discredit him.
Zenz told NBC News that while he’s used to criticism from China for his work, this is the most complicated effort yet.
“I’ve been subjected to a lot of smear campaigns,” Zenz said in a phone call. “This one seemed a little more complicated because she tried to make a credible argument, with connections, even using fake documents, trying to build a narrative that some people could believe.”