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Calls to protest against George Soros and refugees. Far-right Twitter talks about immigrants. New Europe Observation looks like a far-right online news outlet. But it’s actually a front group for a Chinese propaganda network that borrows tactics from the infamous 2016 Russian troll farm.
Social media giant Meta announced on Wednesday that it had launched 107 accounts in a China-linked network behind the fake outlet dubbed New Europe Observation. The outlet, which Meta researchers said was linked to a Chinese tech company, appeared to be aimed at trying to stir up unrest in European countries. The fake network has published anti-immigration screeds, opposed a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, criticized Taiwanese politicians and pushed propaganda about China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.
The New Europe Observation network pushes its propaganda differently from other China-based troll networks, which often employ mass spam techniques. Instead, it follows the kind of tactics used by the troll farm of the Internet Research Agency of Russia. The actors behind New Europe Observation have been trying to hire astroturf protesters for offline demonstrations, registered a company in London, partnered with a Ugandan NGO and contacted native speakers of English, Russian and other languages to write content for their bogus outlets.
It’s the first time we see Chinese [coordinated inauthentic behavior] networks that recruit freelancers, work at an NGO, run a front company in the West, says Ben Nimmo, head of global threat intelligence at Metas Rolling stone. They are still struggling to build an audience. They’re experimenting, but they’re experimenting with tactics that we’ve seen for years.
In one case, trolls tried to hire protesters for a rally against right-wing favorite black man, liberal financier George Soros.
We are hiring part-time to carry your signs with the slogan Soros, we don’t want refugee camps for a photo-taking business right in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building, the outlet’s Twitter account announced in August 2022.
New Europe Observation also took to Freelancer.com looking for translators who could churn out texts on topics of interest to Chinese foreign policy, such as Beijing’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbors.
On Tuesday, Rolling stone contacted a Telegram account associated with the fake news site. The account asked where the author was from and said that New Europe Observation was still hiring writers.
In addition to Instagram and Facebook footprints, Meta researchers found accounts affiliated with the New Europe Observation brand on a number of other social media platforms, including Telegram, WordPress, Blogspot, Reddit and Twitter.
Rolling stone discovered accounts linked to the email address of fake news outlets on Skype and EventBrite, a web-based platform for organizing meetings and events, suggesting that the trolls behind the outlet were even more active in reaching out to the public and attempt to organize them offline. The network also appears to have a TikTok account in the name of New Europe Observation, which at the time of publication has no content or apparent activity.
China-based troll networks have lagged relatively behind other nation-state-related influence campaigns that emerged in earnest shortly after the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Since then, China-connected trolls have focused mostly on crude mass 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 appear to have phoned in much of their content. Inflammatory and racist tweets about immigration problems in European countries are plagiarized verbatim from a myriad of Twitter accounts, including the racist far-right British National Party. Articles on his website also snatched verbatim stories from news outlets, including the Associated Press and think tanks like the Center for European Policy Analysis to enrich their content.
Even with its most innovative tactics, the low-effort imitative approach has produced correspondingly disappointing results. His social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook have attracted only a small number of visitors, according to Meta. New Europe Observations’ call for anti-Soros and anti-refugee protesters in Hungary has not received any Twitter likes or engagements.
In years past, Twitter has responded to revelations from other social media companies about coordinated inauthentic behavior by taking similar action against networks disclosed by others in the industry, such as Meta and Google. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the company appears to have largely given up control of coordinated troll networks.
Musk also fired staff coordinating information sharing with other social media companies on these issues, leaving Meta and others without another sounding board. With Twitter going through a period of transition and many of our counterparts having departed, we were in a waiting phase to see where to land on disrupting threats, says a source at Meta Rolling stone.
As of Wednesday morning, the Observation New Europe The Twitter account was still available on the Twitter platform.
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