Uncovering State-Sponsored Disinformation: Inside a Chinese Influence Campaign

Uncovering State-Sponsored Disinformation: Inside a Chinese Influence Campaign

Collaborating with Clemson University's Media Forensics Hub, 3GIMBALS uncovered a widespread Chinese state-sponsored disinformation campaign spreading false narratives about COVID-19’s origins. Using advanced data science techniques, our team discovered over 200 viral memes across 20 online platforms targeting specific individuals. The quality and scope indicated a state-sponsored campaign which we definitively tied to mainland China through studying metadata, technical fingerprints, and geolocation data pointing to an apartment complex in Yulin, China. This enabled public exposure of the disinformation without compromising sensitive government sources. Read the full article to learn more about this analysis and see examples of the uncovered graphics.

As analysts at 3GIMBALS prepare for GEOINT 2024, we’re reminiscing about impactful talks from last year’s conference. A standout was our collaboration with Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, exposing a widespread Chinese disinformation campaign.

Teaming up with Clemson, 3GIMBALS uncovered a network of Chinese state-sponsored media accounts spreading false narratives about COVID-19’s origins through hundreds of memes, reaching untold numbers online.

Here’s how we did it:

The team started with previous research that identified a separate disinformation campaign designed to shift public perception regarding Uighur forced labor camps. This content praised agricultural products and quality of life while questioning the truth of reports about forced labor, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: X (formerly Twitter) posts from Chinese troll accounts designed to shift the narrative surrounding Uighur forced labor camps. Source: Clemson University.

The accounts connected to this campaign published additional, unrelated content hinting at a broader operation that led to our COVID-19 findings. Our data science expertise helped automate Clemson’s disinformation identification techniques at scale. Using automated scraping and reverse image searches, we unearthed content stretching across social media sites targeting the global Chinese diaspora community.

The carefully crafted viral graphics, as sampled in Figure 2, targeted three individuals – a Chinese virologist, an American media executive, and an exiled Chinese businessman – with over 236 memes in 4,200 posts across 20 online platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and other Chinese social sites.

Figure 2: Cartoon calling for the protest of Limeng Yan’s involvement with the Perelman School of Medicine. Source: Pinterest.

The quality and scope of the campaign suggested it was part of a state-sponsored influence operation. By studying the image metadata and technical fingerprints, we connected the disinformation network to mainland China.

Some of the software applications employed in the content creation of viral memes are used almost exclusively in mainland China. These findings were published from specific Huawei and Vivo smartphone models popular primarily in China. The Chinese origins of the campaign were cemented when we discovered geolocation data, shown in Figure 3, pointing to an apartment complex in Yulin, China.

Figure 3: Geolocation of content ties disinformation campaign to China. Source: 3GIMBALS and Clemson University using Google Earth.

These unique insights enabled public reporting through Clemson’s Media Forensics Hub to expose this disinformation without compromising sensitive government sources. Findings also were highlighted last November in CNN reporting about China using its massive disinformation network to harass Americans online.

3GIMBALS continues to develop analytical solutions to detect and defeat emerging deception campaigns aimed at furthering authoritarian narratives. Our OMEN solution integrates targeted data collection and curation with advanced analytics to illuminate threat networks, supply chains, and complex problem sets.

We help national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic customers separate truth from fiction in the modern information space through the rapid prototyping of custom solutions. To learn more, contact our team today at info@3gimbals.com.

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