More than 100 websites disguised as local news outlets in Europe, Asia and Latin America are pushing pro-China content in a widespread influence campaign linked to a Beijing public relations firm, digital watchdog Citizen Lab has found.
Spread over websites in 30 countries, the propaganda material is interspersed with news aggregated from local news outlets and Chinese state media, according to a research report the Toronto-based group released on Wednesday.
"While the campaign's websites enjoyed negligible exposure to date, there is a heightened risk of inadvertent amplification by the local media and target audiences, as a result of the quick multiplication of these websites and their adaptiveness to local languages and content," researcher Alberto Fittarelli said in the report.
The sites' content sways between conspiracy theories, often about the United States or its allies – such as a piece blaming American scientists for "leaking" COVID-19 – to articles attacking Beijing's critics.
It is rare for researchers to link such operations to specific entities. Citizen Lab said the campaign began in mid-2020 and traced the network to public relations firm Shenzhen Haimaiyunxiang Media Co., Ltd., also known as Haimai.
The company did not respond to a Reuters request for comment and a phone number listed on an archived version of its website was not reachable.
"As a principle, it is a typical bias and double standard to allege that the pro-China contents and reports are 'disinformation', and to call the anti-China ones 'true information,'” a spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington said in an emailed statement.
Citizen Lab said one of the websites in the campaign was Roma Journal, which looks every bit like a local Italian news outlet: headlines discuss the Italian prime minister’s political prospects, a hot air balloon festival in a northern province and a book launch.
But a "press releases" button at a corner of its homepage leads to a range of Chinese state media articles on topics suchas China's contribution to the global economic recovery and its push towards technological innovation.
Much of the content on the sites Citizen Lab found was sourced from a press releases service called Times Newswire, which analysts at cybersecurity firm Mandiant last year found to be at the centre of a separate Chinese influence operation that targeted U.S. audiences.
While online influence campaigns are increasingly common as powerful people and governments around the world seek to manipulate public opinion, experts tracking such operations sayChina is one of the biggest sources of such drives alongside Russia and Iran.
Chinese influence operations have increased and expanded well beyond Asia, social media giant Meta said in a report in November, calling it "the most notable change in the threat landscape" since 2020.
Citizen Lab dug deeper into the network it found after a series of such websites popped up in South Korea and Italy.
South Korea's National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) – part of the country's national intelligence agency – exposed 18 of the sites in a report in November, also linking the operation to Haimai. Roma Journal was not legally registered as a news outlet in Italy, the country's Il Foglio newspaper reported.
It was not unusual the campaign was found to be low-engagement, said Dakota Cary, a China-focused consultant at cybersecurity firm SentinelOne.
"I think that's really important, because they still think that it's worthwhile to fund these campaigns," he said. "And so I think, if anything, we should expect to see this continue."