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Meta removes China’s ‘online troll armies’

Accounts linked with the Chinese regime targeted over 50 apps, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok
This photo illustration created in Washington, DC, on July 5 shows the Twitter logo reflected near the logo for Threads, an Instagram app owned by tech giant Meta. The company has removed thousands of troll accounts originating in China for violating its policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior

This photo illustration created in Washington, DC, on July 5 shows the Twitter logo reflected near the logo for Threads, an Instagram app owned by tech giant Meta. The company has removed thousands of troll accounts originating in China for violating its policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 31, 2023 11:54 AM GMT
Updated: August 31, 2023 12:08 PM GMT

Facebook’s parent company Meta has removed thousands of accounts with alleged links to China’s communist government engaged in what it claims as the world’s “largest known cross-platform covert influence operation.”

In a blog post on Aug. 29, Meta said a network of accounts linked with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) targeted more than 50 apps, including Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, and Reddit, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Aug. 30.

“We were able to tie this activity together to confirm it was part of one operation known in the security community as Spamouflage and link it to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement,” Meta said.

The details of the troll accounts that were traced back to Chinese law enforcement officials were revealed in Meta’s Adversarial Threat Report for the second quarter of 2023.

Meta said that it has removed 7,704 Facebook accounts, 954 Pages, 15 groups, and 15 Instagram accounts originating in China for violating its policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior.

The content posted by the network included projecting a positive image of China abroad and targeted Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan, as well as other countries with sizable Chinese-speaking audiences.

Meta pointed out that the troll group was well-funded and coordinated and targeted critics of the Chinese government and dissenting citizens.

“This network was run by geographically dispersed operators across China who appear to have been centrally provisioned with internet access and content directions,” the company alleged.

The content posted by the now-removed accounts included positive commentary about China and its actions in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, its criticism of the United States, and Western foreign policies, among others.

The group also targeted critics of the Chinese government, including journalists and researchers, Meta said.

Lin Shengliang, a Netherlands-based rights activist told RFA that pro-Beijing trolls are still going strong on X, formerly Twitter.

“The Chinese Communist Party has always engaged in cultural penetration and narrative penetration overseas. The main battlefield is Twitter,” Lin said.

Lin alleged that most of the online trolls were from “troll armies” employed by China in prisons who were “more organized and methodical than before.”

“It used to hire internet commentators in the early days, but it has started getting prisoners to work as trolls in groups,” Lin said.

“They are more organized now, and sometimes pretend to be dissidents, and try to change the direction of the narrative at critical moments,” Lin added.

Meta in its report has pointed out that it had identified “multiple distinct clusters” of fake accounts being run from different parts of China.

“Their behavior suggested that they were operated by groups who may have worked from a shared location, such as an office,” Meta said.

“Each cluster worked to a clear shift pattern, with bursts of activity in the mid-morning and early afternoon, Beijing time, with breaks for lunch and supper, and then a final burst of activity in the evening,” Meta further added.

Meta, in its analysis, has also pointed out similarities in the internet protocol (IP/Proxy) used and content posted by the trolls despite being geographically hundreds of miles apart.

“These clusters of activity ...shared identical content across many internet platforms – not just links and articles, but short, ‘personal’ comments as well,” Meta said.

“These comments were designed to appear unique and personal, using terms like ‘I’ and ‘we’ and referring to individual experiences and beliefs. However, hundreds of different accounts made the same “personal” comments on many different services and websites,” Meta added.

Meta also pointed out that some of the accounts even erroneously posted their comments with a serial number indicating that the content was from a common source.

Wang Jian, a financial analyst said that the scale of China’s online troll army is often underestimated.

“There are tens of millions in China’s troll army, two million of whom are full-time,” Wang said.

“In addition to those two million, local governments and other institutions including colleges and universities have their own information officers or online commentators,” Wang added.

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