LONDON – Edwin Vermulst, a Brussels commercial attorney, did not think carefully before agreeing to write an article for Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, that would criticize Belgium’s policy for threatening the company excluded from lucrative deals. He has worked with the company for many years.
After the article was published December 17 on a Dutch website, he moved on to another job. “It was the beginning and the end of my participation,” he said.
Little did he know that the article would have a life of its own. It quickly became part of a covert influence campaign in favor of Huawei in Belgium over 5G networks, high-speed wireless technology at the heart of the geopolitical dispute between the United States and China.
First, at least 14 Twitter accounts pretending to be telecommunications experts, writers and scholars who shared articles by Mr. Vermulst and many others attacked Belgian bills that would restrict providers ” High risks ”as Huawei builds the country’s 5G systems, according to Graphika, a research firm that studies false information and fake social media accounts. Pro-Huawei accounts used computer-generated profile photos, a sign of inauthentic activity.
Next, Huawei officials retweeted the fake accounts, giving articles a broader reach to policy makers, journalists, and business leaders. Kevin Liu, Huawei’s president of public affairs and communications in Western Europe, who has a verified Twitter account with 1.1 million followers, shared 60 posts from fake accounts. for three weeks in December, according to Graphika. Huawei’s official European account, with more than five million followers, has done so 47 times.
Ben Nimmo, a Graphika investigator who has helped identify the campaign in favor of Huawei, said the effort represents a new turning point in social media manipulation. Tactics once used primarily for government goals – such as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election – are being tailored to achieve corporate goals.
“It’s more business than politics,” said Nimmo. “It is not a country that is targeting another country. It looked like an activity to advance the interests of a large multinational – and to do so against a European country. “
Graphika, which provides research for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s misinformation, said there was insufficient evidence to determine who was behind the pro-Huawei activity.
Huawei said in a statement that it had initiated an internal investigation “to try to find out exactly what happened and whether there was any inappropriate behavior.”
“Huawei has clear social media policies based on international best practices and we recommend that these policies have not been followed seriously. “Some of the social media and online activities that caught our attention indicate that we may have been missing these policies and Huawei’s broader values of openness and honesty. and transparency. “
Twitter said it removed the fake accounts after Graphika announced the campaign on December 30.
“Platform manipulation is strictly prohibited by Twitter rules,” the company said in a statement. “If and when we have clear evidence, we will take action on accounts related to this activity, which may include a permanent suspension.”
Huawei, the jewel of China’s tech industry, has suffered a lengthy US campaign to prevent its equipment from being used in new 5G networks around the world. The Trump administration says the company poses a national security threat, arguing that the Chinese government could use Huawei’s communication technology to spy. Huawei has firmly denied those allegations.
The Trump administration has taken several steps to discourage Huawei, including in an effort to cut off supplies of its vital semiconductors. He announced a ban on Huawei products last year; Germany and other European countries are debating their own restrictions.
The 5G contracts are expected to be worth billions of dollars.
Belgium, home to the European Union’s headquarters and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, illustrates the risk Huawei faces across Europe, the company’s largest market outside of China. So far, Huawei and Chinese company ZTE have dominated the Belgian telecom equipment market, according to Strand Consulting, a research firm. But as the Belgian government looks at the new restrictions, wireless operators in the country are turning 5G transactions to rival companies.
“They fear this could spread to other parts of the world,” said John Strand, founder of Strand Consulting, which works with many wireless companies.
Nimmo said the attempt to support Huawei in Belgium was awkward and easy to identify. But it shows ill-advised internet campaigns trying to clean up seemingly legitimate material like Mr. Vermulst’s article through a network of fake websites and social media accounts to give it a sham. carefree and genuine gas.
Graphika has uncovered an attempt to support Huawei after discovering suspicious posts about Belgian 5G policies from Twitter accounts used in a previous pro-China operation. Belgian Magazine Knack and Michiel van HultenThe director of Transparency International in Brussels also identified suspicious attempts to spread pro-Huawei information.
The 14 fake accounts amplified by Huawei officials spread positive articles about the company and negative views on Belgium’s 5G policy. The three-week campaign appears tied to a December 30 deadline in Belgium to review the country’s 5G policy.
To the average Twitter user, fake accounts seem legitimate. They include bland profile photos along with career information. Many have more than 1,000 followers.
But on closer examination, investigators identified a problem with the accounts. Many of their followers appear to be bots. And the photos that have the striking feature of being created with AI software, are perfectly centered but with tiny flaws, like asymmetrical glass. Online businesses that sell fake photos can avoid the risk of detection that using real people’s photos can bring.
The fake accounts shared articles and comments from various online publications, including the EU Reporter, posting government news on their own websites and affiliates like London Globe and New York. Globe.
“If the Belgian government excludes specific suppliers, who will pay for it?” read the title of an article posted on various EU Reporters websites.
Colin Stevens, publisher of EU Reporter, said in an email that he “was unaware of any fake Twitter accounts promoting our articles”. Mr. Stevens said that Huawei paid the EU Reporter to publish opinion articles in the past, but those articles are always labeled with a disclaimer. Belgium’s 5G stories are assigned independently, he said, without Huawei’s involvement.
“EU Reporter will never be intentionally involved in a disinformation campaign,” said Mr. Stevens.
In some cases, investigators found articles like Mr. Vermulst’s, which Huawei paid for and included a disclaimer of the financial deal. Other articles critical of the 5G policy have appeared on websites that accept user-generated content without review, along with an author’s photo that resembles a computer-generated photo in a fake Twitter profile.
Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, says activities like these will become more common as misinformation becomes increasingly commercialized. In a recent report, Oxford University researchers identified 63 cases of public relations firms engaged in online misinformation activities by 2020. This work is often on behalf of political or government figures, he said, but that applies to businesses.
“Cash flows are just on the rise,” said Howard. “Massive social influences are now part of the communications toolkit for any major global corporation.”
In Belgium, the campaign appears to have no effect other than attracting unwanted attention to Huawei’s lobbying efforts. Policymakers show no sign of retreating from Huawei’s plans to restrict Huawei’s access to 5G networks. The draft law must be considered by the National Assembly of this country.
Mr. Vermulst, a commercial attorney, said he was not aware of the fake social media campaign until he was contacted about the article. And while he calls this effort “silly” and “stupid”, he hopes to continue working for Huawei.
“Lawyers are paid for legal opinions,” he said. “Once that article is in the public domain, anyone can do with it whatever they want.”