A Chinese marketing firm hosted a network of at least 72 fake news sites in 11 languages with corresponding fake social media personas that pushed Chinese government talking points, according to a study released Thursday.
NBC News viewed the sites in English, which obscures their ownership and authors. Their articles frequently criticized the United States and the West and appeared to attempt to assuage concerns in those countries, such as China limiting democracy in Hong Kong and placing ethnic minority Uyghur citizens in detention camps.
According to Mandiant, the company that produced the report, the sites were hosted on internet infrastructure owned by a Chinese marketing company, Shanghai Haixun Technology.
It is unclear who allegedly organized the campaign, and neither a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington nor Shanghai Haixun Technology responded to requests for comment. According to the Shanghai Haixun website, the company offers customers in China the ability to post their talking points on news sites in more than 40 languages and more than 140 countries, and it boasts of having covered its clients in English-language news outlets like The Associated Press and Reuters.
The report adds to a growing list of examples of disinformation operations attributed to China, many of which have failed to gain traction. Dakota Cary, a China analyst at Krebs-Stamos Group, a cybersecurity firm, said the ring of news sites appeared to be a clumsy attempt by a pro-China group to influence Western conversation.
“The campaign observed by Mandiant is another example of how China is unable to influence cultural narratives with inauthentic accounts and falsified documents,” said Cary, who was not involved in Mandiant’s research.
In at least one case, the campaign appears to have used fake letters to smear an anthropologist, Adrian Zenz, who has published important research on the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
The letters appear to have first surfaced online in December, when photos of them were posted on the Twitter account of a character named Jonas Drosten. This account has since been suspended, although Google has a cached version of the account which is still visible.
A Twitter spokesperson told NBC News it had suspended several accounts linked to the campaign, but declined to share details.
The three letters all relate to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the Washington think tank where Zenz works. The first, allegedly from the office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., thanks Zenz and appears to link him to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, simply referred to as “Bannon.” The other two appeared to be proof that the foundation had paid Zenz more than half a million dollars for his research.
Spokespersons for Rubio’s office and the foundation confirmed to NBC News that the letters were fake. However, they were treated as genuine in several articles about Zenz in the Shanghai Haixun News Network. China Daily, the country’s main state-sponsored English-language news outlet, 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 a previous information operation that another cybersecurity firm, Recorded Future, attributed to Russia. During this campaign, the forged letters appeared designed to erode support for NATO, the US-led military alliance.
Zenz is a common target for Chinese officials. Last year, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda chief, Xu Guixiang, held a press conference dedicated to trying to discredit him.
Zenz told NBC News that while he’s used to receiving criticism from China for his work, this is the most elaborate effort to date.
“I’ve been the subject of many smear campaigns,” Zenz said in a phone call. “This one seemed to be slightly more sophisticated as it tried to build a believable argument, with connections, even using fake documents, trying to construct a narrative that some people might believe.”