China’s Project 912 Used Social Media to Target Dissidents

Group of police officers tasked with sowing discord over George Floyd, Covid origins, South China Sea

(Bloomberg) — The Chinese government has a team of police officers who create fake social accounts to harass dissidents and other critics outside of its borders, according to US prosecutors.

The group, known as the “912 Special Project Working Group,” has been particularly active in recent years, according to the Justice Department. 

Its activity, outlined in detailed court documents from US officials, involves instances such as an incident on Sept. 15 2021, when Marlon Pindos, a Facebook user from the Philippines, posted a video with the caption “brags and cheats every day” about an unnamed critic of the Chinese government who fled the country and now lives in New York City.

Other Facebook users soon chimed in. “He is really disgusting,” Lacey Sutton wrote in Chinese.

“Yes, he is a real liar,” Charlotte Gray commented, in English. Julie Torres of Madison, Wisconsin, added, “Why isn’t he in jail? What is the government doing?”

The exchange between allegedly phony accounts is included an extraordinarily detailed 89-page complaint and affidavit filed on April 17 by federal prosecutors to support charges against 34 members of China’s Ministry of Public Security — the national police force — who were accused of engaging in a conspiracy of transnational repression that targeted US residents on social media. 

The mission, according to US prosecutors, was to use fake accounts on Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook, Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube and Twitter to promote narratives that were favorable to the Chinese Communist Party, stoke social and political tensions in the US, intimidate foreign enemies of the Chinese government and undermine public critics of the regime who have sought refuge abroad. 

Asked about Project 912’s operations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing that China has always respected other countries’ sovereignty.

“The label of transnational suppression cannot be put on China and this is the US manipulation of facts and we firmly reject that,” he said. China’s Ministry of Public Security didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.

Targets of Project 912’s alleged online harassment include one of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and a virologist who fled China in 2020, according to the US. Prosecutors don’t identify the victims by name.

Victim 1 in the complaint closely matches a description of Guo Wengui, a billionaire businessman and persistent critic of the Chinese government. According to the complaint, members of the 912 Project monitored Guo’s social media accounts daily, including on holidays and weekends. One project member allegedly posted on Facebook 120 times about Guo.

Guo, who in March was arrested and charged with fraud by US prosecutors, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Victim 14 is identified as a senior executive at a US social media company who closely matched Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Meta. Prosecutors say that a Twitter account, @ppcqCAMjyt5fXwV, harassed the executive with anti-Semitic tropes. The account was still active at press time, with zero followers and virtually no engagement on any of its posts, according to a review by Bloomberg. 

The account, primarily posting in Chinese, wrote about how the senior executive lobbied against Chinese social media app TikTok in Washington.

Meta didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US, cybersecurity researchers and government officials investigated the use of fake social media accounts by hostile foreign powers, including China and Russia, to stoke political divisions, although some critics question how influential such tactics were. It’s not clear whether Project 912 successfully shaped narratives or sowed discord, though some of the  accounts that haven’t been banned by social media platforms appear to have very few followers and engagement.

“This activity closely resembles influence operations we see conducted by pro-Chinese actors across a range of online platforms,” said Jack Stubbs, vice president of intelligence at the social media analysis firm Graphika Inc. “Those operations are often spammy and low quality, but can flood the information space with content that promotes the CCP and attempts to silence its critics.”

The charges against the Project 912 defendant stood out for their identification of Ministry of Public Security officials who were involved in directing and coordinating these farms, said Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. The indictment and affidavit also include pictures of most of the defendants.

“The various directions the task force attempts to shape narrative indicates that apart from trying to increase support for the PRC and PRC positions, significant energy seems devoted to creating confusion and division,” he said, using the formal acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “They also seek to suppress negative messages about the PRC, including engaging in the harassment of dissidents.”

According to US prosecutors, the disinformation campaign took place inside the offices of Beijing’s Municipal Public Security Bureau, where dozens of officers were engaged in a battle to defeat China’s enemies abroad, according to the complaint. Their supplies included dozens of laptops, television sets and beds to accommodate occasions where around-the-clock effort is required.

New members are given step-by-step instructions for creating and maintaining multiple social media accounts on a specific platform. In 2016, the project created a fake account for “Stacey Altman” of Sparks, Nevada. The next year, “Susan Miller” of New York got an account, and in 2020, “Bill Giao” of Palo Alto, California, according to prosecutors.

The group’s leaders occasionally send out a “tasking” to the group to marshal social media accounts on specific issues, according to court documents. In May 2022, for instance, the team received a tasking to take advantage of the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death “to reveal the law enforcement brutality in the US, racial discrimination and other social problems,” the complaint said. “Subsequently, an account controlled by the group made numerous posts about George Floyd’s death and accusing US law enforcement institutions of racism,” prosecutors said.

In another example, the 912 Project received an assignment in about August 2021 related to the origins of Covid-19 — if “relevant parties” insist on pursuing the theory of a laboratory leak, then US virus laboratories should be investigated too, according to the US.

Project 912 also disrupted videoconferences of US-based dissidents and targeted their family members in China, placing the father of one of them under house arrest, according to the complaint.

Members of the 912 Project saw their efforts as a way of fighting for China’s adversaries, prosecutors said. 

A meme circulated within the group depicts two images side by side. In the first, gun-wielding Chinese soldiers are pictured with the caption “how my grandfather fought for China.” In the second, a man in a t-shirt sits in front of a computer, with a poster of Mao Zedong and a flag of China on the wall behind him.

“How I fought for China,” it reads. 

–With assistance from Jamie Tarabay and Colum Murphy.

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