A network of fake social media accounts linked to the Chinese government pushed Americans to protest anti-Asian violence and dismiss the idea that the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab.
A report from cybersecurity firm Mandiant and a Google research team found that thousands of accounts on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms were involved in the network. They called on Americans, specifically New Yorkers, to show up for protests against anti-Asian discrimination and "fight back" against theories that the COVID-19 virus was created in a Chinese lab in Wuhan. The Twitter and Facebook accounts largely pushed #StopAsianHate, a hashtag that liberal politicians adopted in the wake of high-profile street attacks on Asian Americans.
Mandiant's vice president of analysis told the Wall Street Journal that the network was "almost certainly supported by a government sponsor, either directly through a government agency or a third-party contractor." The social media operation received a relatively low amount of engagement, researchers said.
Although experts are still debating COVID-19's origins, a U.S. intelligence report released last week said the lab-leak theory may be the most likely explanation. China has refused to cooperate with efforts to investigate the origins of the virus, and progressive groups have called the theory racist and dangerous to Asian Americans. Social media sites initially suppressed claims that COVID was created in or escaped from a Chinese lab, labeling them "misinformation."
China has aggressively pushed back against allegations that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab, and multiple Communist Party officials and outlets have said the virus actually escaped from a U.S. military base. But the social media campaign may be Beijing's most aggressive push to influence Americans through social media.
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter suspended the accounts involved in the Chinese operation, citing rules that prohibit fake or secretly government-backed accounts.
China has escalated its hacks of American targets, which seek individual, corporate, and government information. A hack discovered in March targeted Microsoft Exchange email servers and affected tens of millions of Americans.
The Biden administration has struggled to shore up federal cybersecurity resources. The administration's proposed budget for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency was $397 million short of what even some Democrats desired for the agency.