Pro-China Internet Trolls Just Got Busted for Doing Something Wild
Calls to protest George Soros and refugees. Far-right Twitter screeds about immigrants. New Europe Observation sounds like a far-right extremely online news outlet. But it’s actually a front group for a Chinese propaganda network that’s borrowing tactics from Russia’s infamous 2016 troll farm.
Social media giant Meta announced on Wednesday that it had booted 107 accounts in a China-linked network behind the phony news outlet dubbed the New Europe Observation. The outlet, which Meta researchers say was linked to a Chinese technology company, appeared to be aimed at trying to stir up unrest in European countries. The fake network posted anti-immigration screeds, opposed boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, criticized Taiwanese politicians, and pushed propaganda about China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority population.
The New Europe Observation network pushes its propaganda differently from other China-based troll networks, which often use bulk-spam techniques. Instead, it follows the kinds of tactics used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency troll farm. The actors behind New Europe Observation tried to hire astroturf protesters for offline demonstrations, registered a company in London, partnered with a Ugandan NGO, and reached out to native speakers of English, Russian, and other languages to write content for their phony outlets.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen Chinese [coordinated inauthentic behavior] networks recruiting freelancers, working at an NGO, running a front company in the West,” Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat-intelligence chief, tells Rolling Stone. “They’re still struggling to build an audience. They are experimenting, but they are experimenting with tactics that we’ve seen for years.”
In one case, the trolls tried to hire protesters for a demonstration against the favorite right-wing boogeyman, liberal financier George Soros.
“We are hiring part-timers to bring your placards with a slogan ‘Soros, we don’t want refugee camps’ for a photo taking activity just opposite the Hungarian Parliament Building,” the outlet’s Twitter account announced in August 2022.
The New Europe Observation also posted on Freelancer.com seeking translators who could churn out copy on topics of interest to Chinese foreign policy, like Beijing’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbors.
On Tuesday, Rolling Stone contacted a Telegram account associated with the fake news outlet. The account inquired about where the author was from, and said New Europe Observation was still hiring writers.
In addition to its Instagram and Facebook footprints, Meta researchers found accounts affiliated with the New Europe Observation brand on a host of other social media platforms, including Telegram, WordPress, Blogspot, Reddit, and Twitter.
Rolling Stone uncovered accounts linked to the fake news outlet’s email address on Skype and EventBrite — a web-based platform for organizing meetups and events — suggesting that the trolls behind the outlet were even more active in reaching out to audiences and attempting to organize them offline. The network also appears to have a TikTok account in the name of the New Europe Observation, which at the time of publication does not have any content or apparent activity.
China-based troll networks have been relative latecomers compared with other nation-state-linked influence campaigns, surfacing in earnest shortly after pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Since then, China-linked trolls have focused mostly on crude bulk-spam campaigns that blast repetitive messages and cartoons, while struggling with idiomatic English. In other cases, mainland-based troll networks have targeted female journalists with waves of harassment for reporting on sensitive issues, such as human rights in China.
Despite New Europe Observation’s relatively innovative tactics, the authors behind it appear to have phoned in much of their content. Inflammatory and racist tweets on immigration issues in European countries are plagiarized word for word from a host of Twitter accounts, including the far-right, racist British National Party. Articles on its website also yanked stories verbatim from news outlets, including The Associated Press and think tanks such as the Center for European Policy Analysis in order to pad out its content.
Even with its more innovative tactics, the low-effort copycat approach yielded proportionally disappointing results. Its social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook attracted only small numbers of visitors, according to Meta. New Europe Observation’s plea for anti-Soros and anti-refugee protesters in Hungary did not receive any likes or engagement on Twitter.
In years past, Twitter responded to other social media companies’ revelations about coordinated inauthentic behavior by taking similar action against networks revealed by others in the industry, like Meta and Google. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the company appears to have largely given up on policing coordinated troll networks.
Musk also fired the staff that used to coordinate information sharing with other social media companies on these issues, leaving Meta and others without another sounding board. “With Twitter going through a transition period, and since many of our counterparts left, we’re in wait-and-see phase to see where they land on threat disruption,” a Meta source tells Rolling Stone.
As of Wednesday morning, the New Europe Observation Twitter account was still available on Twitter’s platform.
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