Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Social Media

US Charges Chinese Officials With Running Troll Farm

Also: Conspiracy to Transmit Interstate Threats and Commit Interstate Harassment
US Charges Chinese Officials With Running Troll Farm
The exterior of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. (Image: Shutterstock)

U.S. law enforcement says a troll farm operated by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security used fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to disseminate propaganda and harass dissidents located in the United States.

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The allegations come in a complaint filed in federal court against 34 ministry officials, charging them with conspiracy to transmit interstate threats and conspiracy to commit interstate harassment.

The complaint says the troll farm was part of a Chinese government initiative dubbed by the ministry as the 912 Special Project Working Group. The farm, which has also been called the Cyber Investigation Team, works out of a government building in Beijing's central core. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return a request for comment. Federal officials outlined the charges in an afternoon press conference at which they also announced an expanded complaint against a group of 10 Chinese officials who in 2020 allegedly disrupted Zoom calls organized by U.S.-based dissidents to commemorate the June 4, 1989, massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Most of the charged defendants are believed to be in China. That's not the case for two Chinese nationals arrested in New York for allegedly operating an illegal Ministry of Public Security police station in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The three cases show "the PRC's efforts to globalize the oppressive tactics used domestically in China to silence dissent," said David Newman, principal deputy assistant attorney general, referring to the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

Propaganda distributed by the 912 Special Project Working Group included repeating official Chinese talking points that the World Health Organization should investigate virus laboratories in the U.S. for an alleged role in creating the novel coronavirus pandemic. The group also amplified Russian messaging by suggesting that U.S. intelligence agencies caused the Nord Stream pipeline explosion.

Team members also allegedly harassed dissidents and critics through threatening or trolling messages, and in some cases, by pressuring social media platforms to block the accounts of intended victims. They also infiltrated Zoom events "by drowning out the speech of the participants with profane and threatening rhetoric" and worked with a defendant charged in the expanded complaint known as "Julien Jin," a Chinese employee of Zoom who used his position to ban call participants for violating the platform's terms of services.

The New York outpost of the Ministry of Public Security is not the only illegal Chinese police station located abroad. The nongovernmental organization Safe Guard Defenders in 2022 published a report identifying 102 such clandestine stations in 53 countries.

Among the charges facing the two Chinese nationals arrested in New York are destroying evidence of communications with the ministry after they became aware of an FBI investigation. One man, Lu Jianwang, participated in pro-Chinese counterprotests in Washington, D.C., and threatened violence against one man's family unless he returned to China.

"It is simply outrageous that China's Ministry of Public Security thinks it can get away with establishing a secret, illegal police station on U.S. soil to aid its efforts to export repression and subvert our rule of law," said acting Assistant Director Kurt Ronnow of the FBI Counterintelligence Division.

About the Author

David Perera

David Perera

Editorial Director, News, ISMG

Perera is editorial director for news at Information Security Media Group. He previously covered privacy and data security for outlets including MLex and Politico.

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