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China's disinformation ops 'have been going on for years'

Australian think-tank says pro-Beijing messages were put out using re-purposed spam or marketing accounts with many known followers, instead of using social influencers

Hong Kong

A STATE-BACKED disinformation campaign used by China to sow political discord and discredit pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong is more widespread than previously thought, a new report has said.

Last month, Twitter said it deleted nearly 200,000 accounts that originated in China and sought to undermine the Hong Kong protest movement.

The report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted that some of those date back years and have been used in a series of state-sponsored disinformation operations targeting Beijing's political opponents, including an exiled billionaire, a human-rights lawyer and a bookseller targeted by officials for distributing tales of China's political elite.

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Predominantly in Chinese, the posts suggest that state actors were targeting an audience of Hong Kong people and overseas diaspora, feeding them the state line on how to think about events that might be covered differently by international media, researchers said. The tweets occurred primarily during the country's work week and during local business hours, with breaks for weekends and holidays like Chinese New Year.

Researchers at the Canberra-based think-tank, which analysed a sample of nearly 1,000 accounts disclosed by Twitter, said: "This is significant because - if the attribution to state-backed actors made by Twitter is correct - it indicates the actors linked to the Chinese government may have been running covert information operations on Western social media platforms for at least two years."

In the case of Hong Kong, tweets began appearing in April about planned amendments to allow extraditions to China.

The main narratives were threefold: Condemn the protesters, support the Hong Kong police and rule of law and promulgate conspiracy theories about Western involvement in the protests, the think-tank said. The tweets, many of which were in traditional Chinese characters (which are used in Hong Kong), spiked in June, after thousands of people began their protests.

Similar campaigns include those against Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman who has publicly accused senior government officials of corruption. Tens of thousands of tweets dating back to 2017 accuse him of treachery against his country and highlight his relationship with former Trump-adviser Steve Bannon.

Despite the longevity of the Chinese accounts and the variety of their disinformation campaigns, the report describes a "blunt-force influence operation, using spam accounts to disseminate messaging, leveraging an influence-for-hire network". Many of the accounts were re-purposed spam or marketing accounts, easily purchased for a few dollars each, the report said.

That contrasts with a more sophisticated effort out of Russia in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, where on-the-ground staffers undertook market research and cultivated social media personas to influence targeted user communities.

The report said: "Building that kind of influence infrastructure takes time and the situation in Hong Kong was evolving too rapidly, so it appears that the actors behind this campaign effectively took a short-cut by buying established accounts with many followers." BLOOMBERG