In a recent discovery by digital watchdog Citizen Lab, it has come to light that over 100 websites across Europe, Asia, and Latin America are operating as disguised local news outlets. However, these websites are not merely serving as unbiased sources of information. Instead, they are part of a widespread influence campaign aimed at promoting pro-China content.
Citizen Lab’s research report, released on Wednesday, revealed that these websites, spread out across 30 countries, are not only producing propagandistic material but also integrating it with news aggregated from local news outlets and Chinese state media. This clever strategy makes it harder to detect the presence of propaganda, leading to a greater risk of inadvertent amplification by local media and unsuspecting audiences. Alberto Fittarelli, a researcher at Citizen Lab, highlights the adaptiveness of these websites to local languages and content as a significant concern.
The content found on these websites can be described as a mix of conspiracy theories and attacks, often targeting the United States and its allies. For example, one article on the websites blames American scientists for “leaking” COVID-19, perpetuating a baseless theory. On the other hand, these platforms also publish articles attacking critics of Beijing. What makes this discovery particularly unique is the ability to link these operations to a specific entity, something that researchers rarely achieve.
Citizen Lab has identified the source of this campaign to be a public relations firm called Shenzhen Haimaiyunxiang Media Co., Ltd., also known as Haimai. However, neither the firm nor its representatives responded to requests for comments. Meanwhile, China’s embassy spokesperson in Washington dismissed allegations of disinformation, suggesting a bias and double standard in labeling content as “pro-China” and “anti-China.”
One of the deceptive websites uncovered by Citizen Lab was Roma Journal, masquerading as an Italian news outlet. On the surface, this website appears to cover local Italian news, discussing political prospects, hot air balloon festivals, and book launches. However, a closer look reveals a “press releases” button that leads to a range of articles from Chinese state media, focusing on topics such as China’s economic recovery contribution and technological innovation.
Interestingly, much of the content found on these websites originated from a press releases service called Times Newswire, which was previously linked to another Chinese influence operation targeting U.S. audiences. The use of pre-existing content sources adds credibility and disguises the true nature of the campaign.
China’s Expanding Influence Operations
While online influence campaigns are increasingly prevalent worldwide, China is emerging as one of the major sources of such operations, alongside Russia and Iran. Experts tracking these campaigns have noticed a significant increase in Chinese influence operations, which have expanded beyond Asia. According to a report by social media giant Meta, this expansion represents a notable change in the threat landscape since 2020.
Citizen Lab’s investigation gained momentum after a series of similar websites surfaced in South Korea and Italy. The National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) in South Korea exposed 18 of these websites in a report last November, also linking them to the Haimai operation. In Italy, the country’s Il Foglio newspaper reported that Roma Journal was not legally registered as a news outlet.
The Challenge of Low-Engagement Campaigns
One intriguing aspect of this influence campaign is its low level of engagement. While the campaign’s websites have not gained significant exposure thus far, it is essential to recognize that the funders of these campaigns consider them worthwhile. Dakota Cary, a China-focused consultant at cybersecurity firm SentinelOne, highlights the significance of this finding. The existence of such campaigns, even with low engagement, underscores the long-term goals and persistent efforts of those involved.
Citizen Lab’s discovery of a network of deceptive websites serving as a platform for pro-China propaganda emphasizes the increasing scale and sophistication of influence campaigns. By blending in with local news outlets and presenting pre-existing content, these websites successfully disseminate biased narratives while eluding initial detection. This revelation further highlights the need for media literacy, critical thinking, and robust fact-checking efforts to combat the spread of disinformation in the digital age.