Frank Fang | New Tang Dynasty
Facebook has shut down more than 180 fake accounts, groups, pages, and Instagram accounts that it determined to be run in China, which posted content on the U.S. presidential election and spread Beijing’s talking points on a range of topics, from the South China Sea to Hong Kong protests.
The U.S. social media giant announced the takedown in a blog post published on Sept. 22, saying that these accounts were a violation of its rule against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.”
In total, 155 Facebook accounts, 11 pages, nine groups, and six Instagram accounts were shut down. The Instagram app is owned by Facebook.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy and author of the blog post, explained that while people behind these accounts tried to conceal their identity and location, including by using virtual private networks (VPNs), the company was able to trace the account operators to southern China’s Fujian Province.
Chinese netizens commonly use VPNs to bypass China’s internet blockade and access websites banned in China, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Google.
According to Facebook, this Chinese-created network focused most of its posts on Southeast Asia, posting news about global events such as Chinese and U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea, protests in Hong Kong, and support for current Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and the possible 2022 presidential bid of his daughter, Sara Duerte, who is currently the mayor of Davao city in the Philippines. People behind these accounts posted in Chinese, Filipino, and English.
On the upcoming U.S. election, these accounts posted content both “in support of and against presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump,” Gleicher stated.
In terms of the campaign’s appeal, about 133,000 Facebook accounts followed one or more of these fake Facebook pages, and around 61,000 people joined one or more of these groups. However, the network “gained almost no following” in the United States, according to Gleicher.
Facebook also found a second inauthentic network, originating from the Philippines. The firm took down 57 accounts, 31 pages, and 20 Instagram accounts in connection with it.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has removed Chinese-affiliated fake accounts; in August 2019, Facebook removed five accounts, seven pages, and three groups from a network that originated in China. The accounts used a number of “deceptive tactics” to post misleading information about the Hong Kong protests, including managing pages “posing as news organizations.” In this case, Facebook said that its investigation “found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”
U.S. network analysis firm Graphika released its own investigative report on the recently deleted Chinese-linked accounts, revealing more information about their tactics. Graphika is commissioned by the social media company to conduct such analyses.
It found that the operation behind these accounts began in late 2016 and it repeatedly went back to the “theme” of maritime security, in particular, “the achievements of the Chinese navy.”
For example, one Facebook account named “Modern Chinese Warship” posted on March 21, 2018, about the recent return of the Chinese navy after completing a mission in the Gulf of Aden.
When the operation began in 2016, a cluster of accounts focused on Taiwan. One Facebook page named “Things About the Taiwan Strait” first began posting “comments about the prowess of mainland China and the benefits that Taiwan would reap from reunification,” according to the report.
The Chinese regime claims that Taiwan is a part of China despite the fact that the island is a de-facto independent country with its own constitution, military, and democratically elected officials. Beijing has threatened to use military force to bring the island under its control.
Previously, documents from the Beijing city government that were leaked to The Epoch Times revealed that authorities maintained several proxy Facebook pages to promote the regime’s claim of sovereignty and the idea of a military invasion of Taiwan.
In April 2019, the network began focusing on U.S. politics. One Facebook group called “Go for Pete Buttigieg” was created on April 27, 2019. Buttigieg officially launched his presidential bid on April 14, 2019. He ended his campaign in March.
According to Graphika, the Facebook group changed its name to “For Pete Buttigieg” on July 4, four months after he dropped out of the presidential race.
Graphika also found that the network had begun creating accounts and pages “with apparently American names and personas” by April 2019. For example, one account, under the name Kate Selina, posed as a conservative American, with posts criticizing Medicare for All and gun-control policies.
Another account, named Brian E. Gerald, posed as a liberal American, posting memes mocking President Donald Trump.
The network also included a Facebook group named “Trump KAG 2020” that supported Trump, and a group called “Biden Harris 2020” that supported the Democratic presidential running mates.
Only the Biden–Harris page had a significant following before it was taken down by Facebook. According to Graphika, it had about 1,400 members.
The firm gave two hypotheses as to why the operation posted such content.
“It is possible that the intention was to further polarize America’s political landscape by affirming each side’s view of the other,” Graphika said, but pointed out that it was “strange” the operation didn’t pay attention to “more progressive groups and candidates, such as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.” The two also vied for the Democratic presidential nomination, on more radical platforms.
The firm also surmised that the network’s intention could be “to use election-related messaging to infiltrate online communities on both the right and the left, especially those communities that were interested in the U.S. Navy and maritime issues more generally.”
The network also defended the Chinese regime, such as touting its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and amplifying the unfounded claim that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, didn’t originate from China.
The virus originated from the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, but Chinese authorities hid the outbreak from the public, holding back key information—such as the virus’s capability to spread among humans. In March, as the outbreak grew severe outside of China, Beijing launched a global propaganda campaign, trying to change the narrative on the disease, such as accusing the U.S. Army of carrying the disease to Wuhan.
Masking Fake Accounts
Graphika also found evidence to suggest that the network might have “purchased or otherwise acquired” some of its accounts from real users, after observing that some of the profile names differed from the name that appeared in its URLs. Facebook generates a unique URL for each user’s profile, which usually contains the user’s name.
Some accounts also posted photos generated by a form of artificial intelligence (AI) known as generative adversarial networks (GANs) to avoid being detected as fake accounts.
Doing a reverse search on photos can expose accounts that use borrowed pictures, which confirms they are fake.
“This form of AI is readily available online, and its use (or abuse) by covert operations has exploded in the last year,” the Graphika report stated.
However, these images aren’t “foolproof,” as there are subtle anomalies that can be detected with the human eye, such as distortions in the ears and hair.
For example, in the photo of an account named Polo Kalia Sota, the photo background is distorted, and the glasses and ears appear asymmetrical.
Graphika identified a dozen of these GAN-generated images among the network’s accounts.
From The Epoch Times