Chinese marketing firm created fake news sites targeting 30 countries, researchers reveal

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Feb. 7, 2024 10:00PM GMT+9

A digital watchdog group uncovered a vast network of at least 123 fake news sites on Wednesday, originating in China and spread across 30 countries, designed to promote pro-Beijing propaganda while undermining criticisms of the Chinese government. This revelation showed that the Chinese influence operation extended well beyond the South Korean border, where similar fake websites were identified last year.

In their latest report, Citizen Lab researchers disclosed an extensive influence operation named PAPERWALL, orchestrated by China, targeting nations across Asia, Europe, and Latin America. The operation first set its sights on Japan, where it established nine fake news sites in July 2020. Subsequently, it expanded into South Korea, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy between 2020 and 2021, thereby including these countries among its targets. By the end of last year, the operation had extended its reach to a total of 30 countries.

Among the 123 fake news sites identified, South Korea was the most targeted, with 17 websites, followed by China’s two other neighboring countries, Japan and Russia. Alberto Fittarelli, a senior researcher and the disinformation research lead at Citizen Lab, provided insight into the targeting of these three countries in an email statement. He mentioned, “We can’t be certain of the reason,” but highlighted that at least two South Korean companies seemed to have the ability to publish content on the PAPERWALL network of websites. This suggests that the motivations behind the focus on these countries could be primarily commercial.

The Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity research and internet watchdog group based at the University of Toronto, focuses on investigating advanced digital threats against civilians, including the malicious use of surveillance tools. The group began tracking the activities of Chinese influence operators after their operations were publicly exposed in October 2023 by the Italian news organization, Il Foglio. Delving deeper into the investigation, Citizen Lab, alongside the South Korean intelligence agency and its private partners, not only uncovered and exposed the fake news sites, but they also directly attributed disinformation campaigns to a Chinese marketing firm, “Shenzhen Haimai Yunxiang Media Co., Ltd.”

Mirroring the approach used with South Korean fake news sites, the fraudulent news outlets attempted to deceive readers by masquerading as legitimate local news organizations within the target countries. The operators republished articles from genuine local media, cleverly naming the fake news sites with words and regions relevant to the local language, such as incorporating “Eiffel” for a fake French website and “Napoli” for an Italian one. This strategy aimed to lend an air of credibility to these deceptive platforms.

Hidden among a vast array of innocuous content, including commercial press releases, the operators interspersed malevolent articles. These pieces praised the Chinese government and sought to damage the professional and personal reputations of individuals perceived by the regime as adversarial to Beijing. Additionally, they disseminated misleading content with conspiratorial narratives, including claims that the United States conducted biological experiments on populations in Southeast Asia. This tactic of mixing harmful content with benign news was clearly intended to subtly influence readers' perceptions.

The deceptive content was predominantly sourced from a news wire service called “Times Newswire,” along with promotional materials. The researchers highlighted the unusual relationship between the fake news sites and this news wire service as “one of the most peculiar traits of the campaign.” The Citizen Lab remarked in their report, “While there is certainly no definitive playbook on how online influence operations are conducted, it is uncommon for a network of coordinated websites to consistently use content from a single publicly available but equally covert source.”

The digital watchdog group assessed that the impact of the Chinese influence operation has been “negligible so far,” with the fake news sites attracting limited reader and social media engagement. Additionally, much of the malicious content was produced in English, posing comprehension challenges for those who primarily speak their native languages, thereby limiting the content’s reach and penetration. However, the group warned of potentially severe consequences should this misleading content be amplified by legitimate local media outlets or political figures.

Fittarelli, with over 15 years of experience in technology companies, notably Meta, and specializing in investigating influence operations, suggested that Haimai’s operation likely serves multiple objectives. “One purpose is commercial – distributing press releases for paying customers on what appears to be international media, despite these outlets being fictional,” he explained. Fittarelli further indicated the possibility of the Chinese government being among the clients, as evidenced by the inclusion of anonymous pro-Beijing disinformation and harassment articles within the “press release” sections of the websites.

The report highlighted the growing trend of the disinformation-for-hire industry, which refers to private companies offering information operations as a service to clients, and which are increasingly operating to the benefit of the Chinese government. The senior researcher noted, “[Disinformation-for-hire] benefits any actor that purchases such services, (...) and it is increasingly viewed as being favored by, and likely requested by, governments.” They further speculated, based on an educated guess, that PAPERWALL will not be the last operation of its kind. The rationale behind this prediction is the relatively low cost of executing such tactics and the potentially high rewards when these operations succeed.

nam@thereadable.co

The cover image of this article was designed by Sangseon Kim. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.


Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.