Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Social Media

Facebook Links Massive Disinformation Operation to China

'Spamouflage' Controlled Thousands of Facebook Pages But Struggled for Engagement
Facebook Links Massive Disinformation Operation to China
Chinese communist propaganda art depicting Mao Zedong inspiring workers of the communist revolution (Image: Shutterstock)

Facebook parent Meta unearthed a Chinese propaganda campaign active across dozens of social media sites in what the company calls the largest known cross-platform influence operation in the world.

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The social media giant said Tuesday it had removed nearly 8,000 accounts and nearly 1,000 Facebook pages after tracing them to a Chinese law enforcement-run operation commonly tracked as "Spamouflage."

Facebook says Spamouflage appears to operate in clusters in locations spread throughout China - perhaps in shared offices, given patterns of posting times suggesting a workday schedule complete with breaks around lunch and dinner time. While the offices may be hundreds of miles apart, the clusters share the same proxy internet infrastructure, with exit points often inside the United States. The clusters also repeatedly share identical content across many online platforms - links, as well as "short 'personal' comments," Facebook said.

In all, Spamouflage operates across more than 50 platforms and forums including the platform formerly known as Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit and others. Facebook believes that improved automated detection of fake accounts led the operation to shift toward posting content on smaller platforms "and then trying to amplify it on larger services in hopes to maintain persistence." Target countries include Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan as well as Chinese speakers across the globe.

Despite the volume of posting and resources behind the operation, Spamouflage struggles to reach a genuine audience, Facebook said. Many of the operation's now-shuttered accounts and pages appear to have been purchased from fake engagement farms in Vietnam and Bangladesh. About 560,000 accounts followed one or more of the fake pages, but the accounts were inauthentic, and their engagement was boosted by click farms in Brazil.

Some of the pages previously were low-quality vessels for ads, "leading to highly idiosyncratic behaviors where, for example, a Page that had been posting lingerie ads in Chinese abruptly switched to English and posted organic content about riots in Kazakhstan."

Facebook said many of the group's posts contain obvious mistakes and spelling errors and sometimes are out of sync with real-world events. Social media analytics firm Graphika dated elements of the Spamouflage operation to mid-2018. In 2021, the firm credited the propaganda network with obtaining measurable but still highly limited reach.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday responded to a question about Facebook's findings by calling on the social media giant to "uphold the principle of objectivity and impartiality" and to "weed out disinformation on China," according to the official translation.

About the Author

Mihir Bagwe

Mihir Bagwe

Principal Correspondent, Global News Desk, ISMG

Bagwe previously worked at CISO magazine, reporting the latest cybersecurity news and trends and interviewing cybersecurity subject matter experts.

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