Massive Pro-China Influence Campaign Disguised as Local News Outlets Uncovered

Massive Pro-China Influence Campaign Disguised as Local News Outlets Uncovered

A digital watchdog group known as Citizen Lab has recently exposed over 100 websites posing as local news outlets across Europe, Asia, and Latin America. These websites are part of a widespread influence campaign aimed at promoting pro-China content. The campaign, linked to a Beijing-based public relations firm called Shenzhen Haimaiyunxiang Media Co., Ltd. (Haimai), is spreading propaganda through these disguised news outlets. The content on these websites includes a mix of conspiracy theories, attacks on Beijing’s critics, and news articles sourced from local news outlets and Chinese state media.

Citizen Lab’s research report reveals that these websites, spanning 30 countries, have enjoyed limited exposure thus far. However, there is a heightened risk of inadvertent amplification by local media and target audiences due to the rapid proliferation of these websites and their ability to adapt to local languages and content. This poses a significant challenge as the dissemination of such propaganda can lead to the distortion of public opinion and perception, ultimately undermining the credibility of genuine local news outlets.

The campaign’s websites are not limited to a single geographic region but span across Europe, Asia, and Latin America. One of the identified websites, Roma Journal, masquerades as an Italian news outlet. Its homepage displays various local news articles, including discussions on the Italian prime minister’s political prospects, a hot air balloon festival, and a book launch. However, a simple click on the “press releases” button reveals a treasure trove of Chinese state media articles promoting China’s economic recovery contributions and technological advancements.

Citizen Lab’s investigation has led them to attribute this influence campaign to Haimai, a Beijing-based public relations firm. Despite attempts to reach out to Haimai for comment, the firm remained unresponsive. The origins of the campaign date back to mid-2020, signaling a long-term effort to shape public opinion and perception. Unchallenged dissemination of biased information can significantly impact geopolitical dynamics by suppressing opposing viewpoints, perpetuating false narratives, and stifling open dialogue.

Researchers face numerous challenges when attempting to uncover and attribute influence campaigns such as this to specific entities. Citizen Lab’s findings offer valuable insights into the infrastructure and mechanisms behind these operations, shedding light on the deceptive tactics employed by such entities. The ability to expose these campaigns is critical in combating the dissemination of disinformation and promoting transparency.

While online influence campaigns are becoming increasingly prevalent, China, alongside Russia and Iran, stands out as one of the significant sources of such drives. Meta, a social media giant, revealed in a report that Chinese influence operations have expanded beyond Asia, marking a notable shift in the threat landscape. This shift highlights the need for continued scrutiny of information sources and vigilance to identify and counteract these campaigns effectively.

Citizen Lab’s investigation gained momentum after a series of similar websites emerged in South Korea and Italy. South Korea’s National Cyber Security Center exposed 18 of these sites in a report, linking them to Haimai. In Italy, it was revealed that Roma Journal was not legally registered as a news outlet. These collaborations between cybersecurity firms, intelligence agencies, and media outlets play a crucial role in unmasking covert influence operations and safeguarding the public’s right to reliable and unbiased information.

Though the discovered campaign has gained limited engagement thus far, it is essential to emphasize that even low-engagement operations remain a cause for concern. The fact that these campaigns continue to receive funding speaks to their strategic importance and long-term objectives. Vigilance is necessary to prevent the normalization and acceptance of biased, misleading, or false information.

The exposure of over 100 websites masquerading as local news outlets reveals a massive pro-China influence campaign with far-reaching implications. Through these deceptive websites, the campaign seeks to shape public opinion and promote a specific narrative favorable to China. These findings underscore the critical importance of independent journalism, fact-checking, and collaborative efforts to counteract such campaigns. By remaining vigilant and encouraging transparency, society can collectively safeguard the integrity of information and maintain robust democratic discourse.


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