A pro-China network of fake and impostor accounts found a global audience on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to mock the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the deadly riot in Washington that left five dead, new research published Thursday found.
Messages posted by the network, which also praised China, reached the social media feeds of government officials, including some in China and Venezuela who retweeted posts from the fake accounts to millions of their followers.
The international reach marked new territory for a pro-China social media network that has been operating for years, said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations for Graphika, the social media analysis firm that monitored the activity.
“For the very first time, it started to get a little bit of audience interaction,” Nimmo said.
The network’s messaging aligns closely with posts and comments made by Chinese state officials. But it is unclear who is behind the fake accounts, which posted more than 1,400 videos in English, Mandarin or Cantonese, Nimmo said. One of the Twitter accounts, which had a following of roughly 2,000 users mostly from Latin American, also tweeted the messaging in Spanish.
The posts appear to target social media users outside of the United States, gaining traction in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Venezuela — places where Chinese and U.S. diplomatic or financial interests have increasingly come into conflict.
“The overall message is: America is doing very badly. China is doing very well,” Nimmo said. “Who do you want to be like?”
The network used photos of Chinese celebrities on the accounts and, in one case, hijacked the verified Twitter account of a Latin American soap opera show to post messages, according to Graphika’s report.
The fake accounts seized on the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington as Congress met to certify the U.S. election results at the Capitol.
One video described the U.S. as a “failed state” and another said that America was “running naked in front of the world” in the wake of the Capitol siege. Three videos Graphika identified described the riots as a “beautiful sight to behold,” mimicking the language used in Chinese state media reports around the news, the report found.
Relations between Washington and Beijing worsened under former President Donald Trump, who launched an aggressive diplomatic and economic offensive against China. That tension has played out on social media, where Chinese state officials have aired pointed criticisms of Trump in recent years. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has been one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. on social media, tweeting a conspiracy theory last year that the coronavirus began in the U.S., despite evidence that the virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
But even after Trump’s exit from office on Jan. 20, the fake network has continued to push anti-U.S. posts.
Some of the accounts have now pivoted to attacking the Democratic Party by accusing leaders of having a “one-party mentality” in videos posted to YouTube, the report found.
Other fake accounts have questioned the safety of American-approved vaccines for COVID-19, despite studies on tens of thousands of people that found no serious side effects.
“The safety of the … vaccine was in doubt, but it was quickly approved,” one of the pro-China videos posted on Jan. 21 claimed in a headline. Other posts praised China’s response to the pandemic, while criticizing America’s ability to contain the deadly virus.
“There’s this cherry-picking of narratives and events that make the U.S. look really bad,” Nimmo said.
Last month, YouTube announced that it had removed more than 3,000 YouTube channels in December that were identified as part of Graphika’s investigation into influence campaigns linked to China. Other Facebook and Twitter accounts identified in Graphika’s report were also removed.
Associated Press technology reporter Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report from Oakland, Calif.