On Tuesday, September 22nd, Facebook announced the removal of 155 accounts, 11 Pages, nine Groups and six Instagram accounts which violated policies against coordinated inauthentic behaviour. The accounts were operated by individuals in China’s Fujian province. The fraudulent accounts were part of a concerted misinformation operation, nicknamed Operation Naval Gazing, primarily focused on influencing Southeast Asian publics' perceptions of Chinese influence in the region. In a detailed report which accompanied the announcement, the disinformation analysis firm Graphika reported that the Facebook-based disinformation campaign targeted Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and, eventually, the United States:
Operation Naval Gazing enlarges our understanding of information operations emanating from China. Some of its content reflected Chinese messaging, both overt and covert, on issues such as the Hong Kong protests, Taiwan’s independence, and COVID-19. Other content promoted China’s position in its geopolitical rivalry with the United States, especially in the South China Sea. The operation’s use of covert assets to promote favored politicians - notably members of the Duterte family in the Philippines, and President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) in Indonesia - appears more novel. Its use of fake American accounts was also novel, but these assets were generally too rudimentary to establish a persona.
The operation began in late 2016 by posting about Taiwan; some of its posts attacked President Tsai Ing-Wen. In early 2018, it started posting about the Philippines with content that supported President Rodrigo Duterte and argued in favor of Chinese regional influence. Around the same time, it also created a collection of pages that focused more broadly on the South China Sea and defended China’s policies there. For a few months in late 2018, one page began posting in support of President Joko Widodo in Indonesia, shortly before Indonesia’s presidential election.
In 2019-2020, the operation began running accounts that posed as Americans and posted a small amount of content about the U.S. presidential election. Different assets supported President Donald Trump and his rival Joe Biden; one short-lived group supported former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The operation did not single out either candidate for preferential treatment. Many of the accounts in this phase of the operation were barely active.
Throughout all of these phases, the operation kept returning to the theme of maritime security, especially the achievements of the Chinese Navy. [Source]
Graphika’s report also noted that many of the accounts used General Adversarial Networks (GAN), a form of artificial intelligence, to generate new profile pictures and “[sidestep] the need to clothe a fake account in a stolen profile picture; as such, [GANs] defeat the traditional investigative technique of reverse- searching the image.”
... and recent ones used GAN-generated images.
A year ago, this was a novelty. Now it feels like every operation we analyse tries this at least once. pic.twitter.com/iu2HSuZ53I
— Ben Nimmo (@benimmo) September 22, 2020
Groups and accounts targeted at Filipino Facebook users spread messages that praised President Duterte and encouraged increased cooperation between the Philippines and China. Conseulo Marquez of the Philippine Daily Inquirer reports that the accounts shared information regarding Chinese investments in the Philippines and Duterte’s use of emergency powers:
One of the pages taken down was “South China Sea Outpost” which shared the news report about President Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that government will push through with projects under Chinese companies even those blacklisted by the United States.
Specifically, the Sangley Point International Airport, a joint project of blacklisted China company Communications Construction Co. Ltd. (CCCC) and Lucio Tan’s MacroAsia Corp.
Another post by a Facebook page “Solid Sarah Z Duterte 2022,” which backs Duterte-Carpio’s presidential bid in 2022, criticized Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon for opposing the proposal to give Duterte emergency powers to fix the problems hounding Philippine Health Insurance Corp. [Source]
As reported by Rappler itself, the Chinese operation's targets in the Philippines “included opposition senators, Rappler, ABS-CBN news outlets, and Rappler founder and chief executive Maria Ressa.” In June of this year, Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyberlibel, with rights lawyer Amal Clooney describing Ressa’s arrest as “a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse.”
Notably, Operation Naval Gazing used little cross-platform coordination. The operation was connected with only one Twitter account. In March, ProPublica reported on the PRC’s extensive use of fake Twitter accounts to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests and China’s COVID-19 response. On Facebook, as of June this year, Chinese authorities had appeared to favor a more direct approach by posting overtly from state media accounts ("white propaganda") rather than through networks of fake accounts.
However the Graphika report indicates that by 2019, fake Chinese-run accounts had already begun preliminary attempts to impersonate American Facebook users. Yet in an interview with Craig Timber of The Washington Post, Ben Nimmo of Graphika suggested that the influence operations had achieved very little influence on the American public:
For U.S. politics, there were Facebook groups supporting Trump, Biden and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Together the groups had fewer than 2,000 members, Graphika found. One group supporting Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), had about 1,400 members. A group supporting Trump had three members.
“The U.S.-focused content was the least and last part of the operation,” said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations for Graphika. “Some of their fake accounts did not engage with political content at all and liked content from the U.S. military instead. Most of the U.S.-focused assets were taken down when they were a few months old, so they didn’t have time to build a substantial audience. [Source]
The New York Times reports that American officials concurred with Graphika’s assessment on the limit of Chinese interference. Adam Goldman, Sheera Frenkel, and Julian E. Barnes relayed anonymous official assertions that, “China [...] has not yet decided whether to try to influence the election in November in any substantial way.”
Facebook’s public announcement comes eight days after Buzzfeed News reported the contents of a lengthy memo by a now-fired Facebook insider detailing Facebook’s inability or unwillingness to counter state-directed election influence campaigns in Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, among others.
This was Facebook's first takedown of Chinese accounts targeting the United States. In late July 2020, the United States warned China not to interfere in the electoral process. The United States and Australia have launched a joint initiative to combat Chinese social media misinformation efforts.