Chinese operatives accused of running a sophisticated troll farm went to great lengths to harass their U.S. targets and spread propaganda via social media, according to Officials from the U..S Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.
Details of the inner workings of the troll farm, allegedly run by officers of China’s National Police, were revealed Monday when authorities announced they had filed charges in what they described as an insidious “state-directed criminal scheme directed at residents of the United States”.
Forty officers of China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS), along with two officials of the Cyberspace Administration of China, have been charged with a range of crimes relating to the harassment of Chinese nationals living in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere in the U.S.
U.S. authorities allege Chinese operatives ran the campaign from 2016 to present that willfully caused emotional stress on targets of a harassment campaign along with immediate family members. Using fake Twitter and other social media accounts the group also amplified or created misinformation tied to the origins of COVID, Russia-Ukraine war, tensions in the South China Sea and discrimination issues such as the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, according the affidavit (PDF).
The FBI says all the defendants are believed to reside in China or elsewhere in Asia and remain at large.
An affidavit filed in federal court in Brooklyn, in support of arrest warrants for 34 of the accused, outlines the operations of the Beijing-based troll farm, part of a task force known as the “912 Special Project Working Group”.
In the affidavit, the FBI says the troll farm operated around the clock with shifts made up of between four and ten officers.
“Internal records and communications of the Group reflect that it has developed and uses various practices and procedures for targeting individuals, including those residing in the United States, and for propagating PRC (People’s Republic of China) official statements through misattributed accounts.”
The group allegedly targeted outspoken critics of the Chinese government and other dissidents who had left the country to escape persecution. It created thousands of fake online personas on social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, to harass and threaten the dissidents, and to spread Chinese government propaganda and narratives to counter the pro-democracy messages of its victims.
The affidavit includes photos the FBI says are of officers at work in the troll farm’s “duty room” and being instructed in a classroom setting.
The agency says MPS officers were given guides containing step-by-step instructions for setting up and maintaining multiple social media accounts on specific platforms.
“After the accounts are registered, Group members are directed to change the profile icons and download translation tools to their browsers, find articles from approved websites, translate the content, post the translated content on the social media accounts, conduct daily checks for replies to the posts, and interact with the users replying to their posts to avoid the appearance of ‘flooding’ the site.”
To make it appear the accounts were owned by U.S.-based users, the officers would join Western religious groups or groups dedicated to pop culture on the various social platforms.
“After creating myriad social media accounts, including accounts of purported U.S. persons, the Group uses certain accounts to post content consistent with CCP (Chinese Communist Party) narratives that is then quickly amplified through other Group accounts.”
According to the affidavit, the task force tracks the performances of officers running the troll farm and rewards those who successfully operate multiple online personas without detection by the social media platforms or their legitimate users.
“As a result of our investigation, the world now has a unique, never before seen view of how the PRC government deployed this army of internet trolls,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Breon Peace.
“We cannot and will not tolerate the Chinese government's persecution of pro-democracy activists who have sought refuge in this country,” Peace said.
While the accused troll farm operatives remain at large, the Department of Justice announced Monday that two New York men had been arrested in a related investigation into the MPS allegedly opening and operating an illegal overseas police station in Manhattan. The two men are charged with conspiring to act as agents of the Chinese government and obstructing justice by destroying evidence of their communications with an MPS official.