Research finds Chinese influence group trying to mobilize US COVID-19 protests

A wide-ranging pro-China influence group is attempting to use social media platforms and other forums to mobilize physical protests around COVID-19 concerns in the United States, research released Wednesday found.

Cybersecurity group Mandiant Threat Intelligence found evidence that the pro-China group behind the protest efforts, first discovered in 2019, has expanded from using traditional social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to being found on 30 social media sites and 40 other websites and forums.

While Mandiant noted that no successful protests have been seen as a result of the efforts of the group’s call for physical protests, the group’s efforts have increased, with Mandiant finding evidence of the group posting in at least seven languages across the sites to get their messaging out.

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“We have observed extensive promotion of Russian, German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese-language content on U.S. and non-U.S.-based platforms, in addition to the typical English and Chinese-language activity that has been widely reported on,” the Mandiant researchers wrote in the blog post detailing their findings. “This represents a significant development in our collective understanding of this pro-PRC [People's Republic of China] activity set.”

Posts discovered by Mandiant researchers linked to the influence operations include those in multiple languages attempting to cast doubt on the origins of the COVID-19 virus, with several posts in multiple languages claiming it originated in the United States instead of China. Other posts prompted Asian Americans to protest U.S. racial injustice.

According to Mandiant, the group behind the posts is the same one that has been linked to almost 1,000 accounts removed by Twitter in 2019 that were part of a state-backed operation aimed at undermining protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government.

As a result of Twitter’s findings, Facebook at the time removed several profiles, pages and groups linked to the same pro-China influence group. 

Google also took action against this influence last year when it removed more than 3,000 YouTube channels posting about issues including racial justice and the U.S. response to COVID-19. 

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Shane Huntley, head of Google's Threat Analysis Group, tweeted Wednesday that Google had been tracking the influence operation for the past two years and that posts often got only a small amount of engagement online before being removed. 

"Despite the lack of engagement, the volume and persistence shown by this network is noteworthy," Huntley tweeted. "We anticipate they will continue to experiment to drive higher engagement and encourage others in the community to continue tracking this actor and taking action against them."

While the influence group has still had limited success, the Mandiant researchers warned that the expansion of the sites used and languages meant that the influence group was becoming an increasing threat. 

“The attempt to physically mobilize protesters in the U.S. provides early warning that the actors responsible may be starting to explore more direct means of influence and may be indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China’s territories,” the researchers wrote.