NewsGuard, which has previously uncovered other online influence operations from
China and Russia, claims that the new “coordinated online campaign” represents the most expansive Chinese operation it has uncovered to date. NewsGuard, which has previously uncovered other online influence operations from China and Russia
How Conspiracy Theories and Disinformation Spiral Out of Control on the Internet | TechModo
The conspiracy-laden content was written in 15 different languages and appeared on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and around a dozen other platforms. The exact wording varied but the conspiracy theories were based on a scandalous and baseless theory that involved the US military, British spy agencies, and experimental sci fi weaponry. Buckle up for some tinfoil hat activity.
What is the conspiracy theory about?
Several of the posts shared by NewsGuard show users describing a new bombshell report from British Intelligence Service MI6. The fake report supposedly claims that a “defected US scientist” with a guilt conscience approached NewsGuard and revealed the secretive military’s new “weather weapon.” This weapon used “scientific, technological, and other means to manipulate nature’s power.” According to online accounts that promote the conspiracy theory, the US plans to use its weaponized weather destruction against Russia and the “anti-American countries” in the Middle East. Maui is a key player in this story. The posters claim that the Maui fire was not “natural” but rather a result of the US military’s flagrant experimentation with their new wonder weapon. “Everyone is worried whether the US government will use ‘weather weapons’ again to attack other countries.”
“Everyone is worried whether the US government will use ‘weather weapons’ again to attack other countries.”
“This Hawaiian wildfire is just a ‘weather weapon’ attack experiment conducted by the US military!” another post reads.
MI6 and the State Department did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
Who was behind the online campaign?
To be clear, there’s no evidence the US military is working on, or could even theoretically produce, a weapon capable of summoning fires and floods on command. Though the precise starting point of the deadly fires remains unclear, a local electrical company recently said it was partly at fault for failing to shut down power in August when the state experienced extremely dry conditions and heavy winds.
NewsGuard says it traced the conspiracy theory back to a post on the Chinese platform called 163.com in early August. The accounts then jumped to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube by mid-August. In September, posts began appearing on more than a dozen platforms. They were aimed at users in a variety of different countries. Some of the shady accounts interacted with each other to boost their content and used the hashtag #meteorologicalweapon to amplify the falsehoods. Bot accounts appeared to be interacting with many of the posts to give it the appearance that humans are interacting.
In an email to Gizmodo, Meta confirmed the accounts shared by NewsGuard were part of a disinformation operation called Spamouflage that originated in China. This campaign, which began in 2019, is linked to another cache of fake Facebook pages and accounts that Meta researchers have recently detected. Meta said the accounts mentioned in the NewsGuard report were unsuccessful in their attempts to reach real audiences on Facebook.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson from YouTube highlighted the company’s efforts at promoting reputable news sources during emergency scenarios. “During major news events such as the horrifying fires in Hawaii our systems are designed in order to promote content from authoritative sources,” YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez stated
. “We use Top News shelves, Fact Check panels, and Developing News panels to make sure viewers have as much context and information as possible from a range of authoritative sources.NewsGuard says it couldn’t confirm if the coordinated accounts were taking orders from the Chinese government, but they said there is good reason to believe they originated with Chinese-speaking users. Researchers say that the first posts were made in Chinese at least two full days before those in other languages. NewsGuard points out that many of the accounts only seemed to post content aligned with Chinese government interests. NewsGuard believes that some of the posts translated into other languages had strange phrasings, which are telltale signs that they were probably translated from Chinese. The accounts also had similar names and profile photos of inauthentic accounts.
Still, despite its wide scope, the campaign doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective. The accounts, apart from several sites that are harder to measure, only managed to generate 564 interactions total across multiple social networks. This is a pitiful sum.