Monday, June 24, 2024

Uncovering the Deceptive Tactics of Chinese Websites Mimic as Local News

A network of at least 123 websites based in the People’s Republic of China that posed as local news outlets in 30 countries across Europe, Asia, and Latin America. 

The websites are disseminating pro-Beijing falsehoods and ad hominem attacks together with more commercial news releases as part of a campaign dubbed PAPERWALL.

Throughout the network of websites, PAPERWALL’s most aggressive aspects are ephemeral; articles critical of Beijing are frequently removed from these platforms after a predetermined period.

The campaign illustrates a large-scale influence operation that supports Beijing’s political objectives while supporting commercial and political goals.

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Operation of PAPERWALL Campaign

On October 25, 2023, an article appeared in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio that revealed a small network of six websites that were not affiliated with any actual Italian newsrooms but were acting as news outlets for Italian consumers. The websites were not listed as news outlets in the national registry.

List of 6 domains hosting Italian-language websites as identified by Il Foglio

Citizen Lab reports that the detected domains followed a certain naming convention: the name of an Italian city in the local spelling (i.e. “Roma” or “Milano”), followed by mundane terms (for example, “moda” meaning fashion; “money”; or “journal”).

The websites housed on those domains shared a common structure, layout, and content, featuring a mix of general political, criminal, and entertainment articles with a substantial portion of news about China or even directly from Chinese news sources.

Il Foglio alleged that the network was managed from China, potentially by the Chinese government, based on content analysis and six domains that resolved to an unnamed IP address held by Tencent Computer Systems Inc., a significant Chinese firm.

The homepage menus of all the websites that were found were nearly identical and usually included the following topics: politics, economy, culture, current affairs, and sports. 

The content being disseminated was a combination of press releases, anonymous disinformation, and occasionally stories from Chinese official media that were scraped and reprinted from local media in the targeted nation.

“We observed the network as mimicking local news outlets in 30 different countries”, says the report.

Countries Targeted
Countries Targeted

PAPERWALL websites usually included local references in their titles to give the impression that they were authentic local news sources. For instance, city names are frequently used for Italian and Spanish websites, whereas “Eiffel” or “Provence” is used for websites in the French language; “Viking” is utilized for websites in Norwegian.

PAPERWALL shares characteristics with HaiEnergy, an influence operation that the cybersecurity firm Mandiant initially revealed in 2022. Currently, PAPERWALL is a distinctive campaign with its own operators and set of special methods, strategies, and tactics.

Much of the content that PAPERWALL publishes comes from Times Newswire, a newswire service that was once associated with HaiEnergy.

Particularly, Times Newswire routinely disseminates pro-Beijing political content, including ad hominem attacks, by hiding it among a substantial volume of ostensibly positive commercial content.

Although the campaign’s websites have received very little attention thus far, because of their rapid growth and ability to adapt to local languages and content, there is an increased potential for unintentional amplification by target audiences and local media.

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Guru baran
Guru baran
Gurubaran is a co-founder of Cyber Security News and GBHackers On Security. He has 10+ years of experience as a Security Consultant, Editor, and Analyst in cybersecurity, technology, and communications.

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