LONDON – Edwin Vermulst, a trade attorney in Brussels, didn’t think twice before agreeing to write an article for Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, that would criticize Belgian policies that threatened to exclude the company from lucrative deals. He had worked with the company for years.
After the article was published on a Dutch language website on December 17th, he switched to other work. “That was the beginning and the end of my commitment,” he said.
Little did he know the article would take on a life of its own. It soon became part of a covert pro-Huawei influence campaign in Belgium over 5G networks, the high-speed wireless technology at the center of a geopolitical dispute between the US and China.
First, at least 14 Twitter accounts posing as telecommunications experts, writers and scientists have shared articles by Vermulst and many others who cracked down on Belgian bills that, according to Graphika, a high-risk provider like Huawei, were building the 5G The country’s system would restrict research firms that investigate misinformation and fake social media accounts. The Pro Huawei accounts used computer-generated profile pictures, a tell-tale sign of spurious activity.
Next, Huawei officials re-tweeted the fake accounts, giving the articles even greater reach for policy makers, journalists, and business leaders. Kevin Liu, Huawe’s President for Public Affairs and Communications in Western Europe, who has a verified Twitter account with 1.1 million followers, shared 60 posts from the fake accounts for three weeks in December, according to Graphika. Huawei’s official account in Europe, with more than five million followers, has done this 47 times.
The effort points to a new turn in social media manipulation, said Ben Nimmo, a graphics investigator who helped identify the pro-Huawei campaign. Tactics previously used primarily for government goals – like Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election – are being adapted to meet corporate goals.
“It’s more business than politics,” said Mr Nimmo. “It is not a country that targets another country. It looks like an operation to advance the interests of a large multinational company – and to do so against a European state. “
Graphika, which provided research into the investigation into Russian disinformation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there wasn’t enough evidence to determine who was behind the pro-Huawei operation.
Huawei said in a statement that it had opened an internal investigation “to find out exactly what happened and whether there was any inappropriate behavior.”
“Huawei has clear social media guidelines based on international best practices, and we take seriously any suggestion that they are not taken very seriously,” the company said. “We have been made aware of some social media and online activity that suggests we may not have followed these guidelines and our broader Huawei values of openness, honesty and transparency.”
Twitter said it removed the fake accounts after Graphika alerted them to the campaign on Dec. 30.
“The manipulation of platforms is strictly prohibited according to the Twitter rules,” said a statement from the company. “When we have clear evidence, we will take action on accounts associated with this practice, including permanent suspension.”
Huawei, the crown jewel of China’s tech industry, has suffered from an ongoing American campaign to prevent its devices from being used on new 5G networks around the world. The Trump administration said the company posed a national security threat, arguing that the Chinese government could use Huawei’s communications technology to spy. Huawei has vigorously denied these allegations.
The Trump administration has taken several steps to obstruct Huawei, including efforts to cut off supplies of critical semiconductors – guidelines the Biden administration has made no commitments to. The UK 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, the seat of the European Union headquarters and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shows the risk Huawei faces across Europe, the company’s largest market outside of China. According to Strand Consult, a research firm, Huawei and the Chinese company ZTE had previously dominated the Belgian telecommunications equipment market. However, as the Belgian government is considering new restrictions, mobile operators in the country are shifting 5G contracts to competing companies.
“They fear that this could spread to other parts of the world,” said John Strand, founder of Strand Consult, who works with many wireless companies.
Mr Nimmo said the pro-Huawei efforts in Belgium had been poorly executed and easy to identify. But it does show, he said, how sneaky internet campaigns try to launder seemingly legitimate material like Mr. Vermulst’s article through a network of websites and fake social media accounts to give it an air of impartiality and authenticity.
Graphika discovered the Pro-Huawei efforts after discovering suspicious posts about the Belgian 5G directive from Twitter accounts used in a previous Pro-China operation. Belgian magazine Knack and Michiel van Hulten, Director of Transparency International in Brussels, also identified suspicious efforts to disseminate information for Huawei.
The 14 fake accounts expanded by Huawei representatives spread positive articles about the company and negative views about Belgium’s 5G policy. The three-week campaign appeared tied to a December 30 deadline in Belgium to review the country’s 5G policy.
To the casual Twitter user, the fake accounts looked legitimate. They contained boring profile pictures as well as career information. Many had more than 1,000 followers.
Upon closer inspection, however, investigators found problems with the accounts. Many of their followers appeared to be bots. And the images had the hallmark of being created by artificial intelligence software, with perfectly centered photos but small imperfections like asymmetrical glasses. Online businesses sell these types of photos of fake people, which avoids the risk of detection that using images of real people can bring.
The fake reports featured articles and comments from various online publications, including EU Reporter, who posted government news on its own website and with affiliates such as the London Globe and New York Globe.
“If the Belgian government excludes certain suppliers, who will pay for them?” Read the headline of a news item posted on various EU Reporter websites.
Colin Stevens, editor of EU Reporter, said in an email that he was “unaware of fake Twitter accounts promoting our articles”. Mr Stevens said Huawei has paid EU reporters in the past to publish opinion articles, but they always have disclaimers. The Belgian 5G stories were given independently with no involvement from Huawei, he said.
“EU Reporter would never knowingly be part of a disinformation campaign,” said Stevens.
In some cases, investigators found articles such as Vermulst’s that Huawei paid for that contained disclaimers for the financial arrangement. Other articles criticizing the 5G directive have been posted on websites that accept user-generated content without verification, as well as author images that match the computer-generated images in the fake Twitter profiles.
Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said such operations would become more common as the disinformation became increasingly commercialized. In a recent report, Oxford University researchers identified 63 cases of PR firms involved in online disinformation operations in 2020. The work is usually intended for political figures or governments, but can be applied to companies.
“The flow of money is increasing,” said Howard. “Large-scale social media influence operations are now part of the communications toolkit for every large global company.”
In Belgium, the campaign seemed to have little effect other than drawing unwanted attention to Huawei lobbying. Policy makers have shown no signs of withdrawing from plans to restrict Huawei’s access to 5G networks. The draft law now has to be examined by the country’s parliament.
Mr Vermulst, the trade attorney, said he was unaware of the fake social media campaign until he was contacted about this article. And while describing the effort as “silly” and “stupid,” he hoped to keep working for Huawei.
“Lawyers are paid to provide legal opinions,” he said. “Once this article is in the public domain, anyone can do what they want with it.”