Nov 29, 2022 - Technology

New pro-China disinfo Twitter campaign zeros in on critical NGO

Illustration of a computer keyboard with a red return key resembling China's flag

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A pro-China Twitter-based disinformation campaign is actively targeting a human rights group that exposed a secret Beijing operation, researchers at NewsGuard first tell Axios.

Why it matters: Twitter is struggling to grapple with an influx of Chinese-language accounts spreading disinformation following company staff reductions.

The big picture: Pro-China actors are known to rely on Twitter and other social media sites to push back on critical voices.

  • Over the weekend, a group of previously dormant, suspected Chinese government-linked Twitter accounts spammed the site with adult content to drown out news about ongoing protests, per the Washington Post.
  • Last month, Google-owned threat intelligence firm Mandiant uncovered a pro-China disinformation campaign targeting the U.S. elections across social media.

Details: NewsGuard analyst Macrina Wang identified 127 inauthentic Twitter accounts as of Nov. 17 pushing false narratives about nongovernmental organization Safeguard Defenders.

  • In September, Safeguard Defenders published a report detailing how police in China, in coordination with Chinese Communist Party-run entities, had set up a network of overseas police "service stations" across Europe and the rest of the world.
  • Now, a network of English- and Chinese-language Twitter accounts is spreading false information about the Madrid-based NGO, claiming that Safeguard Defenders is working on behalf of the U.S. government “to mess up other countries” and that the organization falsely identifies alleged criminals as political dissidents.

The intrigue: NewsGuard cannot definitively say if the new campaign is directly tied to the Chinese government.

  • However, NewsGuard says the involved Twitter accounts are inauthentic given each one was created only recently, has a low follower count, and almost exclusively posts content about Safeguard Defenders.

Between the lines: Experts worry that nation-state actors — and the groups that work on their behalf — will increasingly turn to Twitter to spread disinformation after Elon Musk drastically reduced the company's content moderation teams.

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