Chinese trolls and fake news websites have been attacking the BBC in a bid to undermine its credibility, new research published today claims. The online influence operation, which is being linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is seemingly a response to the BBC’s reporting on human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and state-backed misinformation campaigns.
The new research from analysts at cybersecurity company Recorded Future claims that the “likely state-sponsored” operation used hundreds of websites and social media accounts to attack the BBC’s reporting. In particular the network has accused the BBC of adding a “filter” to its reports from China to make the country look dull and lifeless.
The propaganda campaign claims the BBC used a “gloom filter” or an “underworld filter” and has promoted this view widely, says Charity Wright, a threat intelligence analyst who conducted the research for Recorded Future’s Insikt Group. “What hit me the hardest was the scope of this campaign: how big it was, and the amount of posts and the volume of this particular narrative that we found,” Wright says. Social media posts, websites containing malware, and official spokespeople have pushed the idea of gloom or underworld filters, Wright adds.
The Recorded Future researchers cite a number of reasons for their confidence that the campaign is sponsored by the Chinese state. The volume of activity, a clear narrative against the BBC that fits the CCP’s politics, “coordination across the Chinese state-sponsored media apparatus,” and the use of Mandarin and foreign-language content all contributed to its decision. “The campaign’s alignment with the CCP’s objectives create a clear picture of how the CCP is conducting large-scale information operations to counter criticism and censor foreign media,” the research concludes.
The operation is seemingly part of a wider crackdown on what Chinese officials see as unjust criticism from international media. In February, BBC World News was banned from broadcasting in China.
But Recorded Future’s research reveals a more covert side to China’s attack on the UK’s national broadcaster. In recent weeks the cybersecurity firm has identified 57 websites pushing the narrative that the BBC altered its images of China, Wright says. “What I saw was a lot of their podcast interviews and photos accusing the BBC of this activity was happening in very random fringe websites,” Wright says. “Some of them are associated with adware and malware. Then some just appear to look like news websites in Chinese or English.” She explains that the details of the “gloom filter” on the sites was often one paragraph of text among other stories. “It was the same narrative over and over, which made this campaign very easy to identify. It didn’t list sources, didn’t list authors. It was just a blurb.”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last six months there have been more than 11,000 Mandarin references to “gloom filter” on social media, with more than half of them coming in the last 30 days, Recorded Future found. English language mentions of “BBC underworld filter” have also spiked during the last six weeks. Across eight different social media platforms—YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Weibo, WeChat, Bilibili, Douyin—there have been more than 56,300 uses of the phrase.
Some accounts used generic profile pictures such as images of animals or the countryside, Wright says, adding that the accounts appeared to work in groups. “There were five to 10 accounts supporting each other [in some instances] and defending each other in the comments against Westerners,” she says. “What we've seen in the past with these types of campaigns is they want to target Western audiences that speak English,” Wright says. “They also want to target the Chinese diaspora around the world.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Suggestions that the BBC has used a filter to alter its pictures of China have been around since at least February this year. State-owned tabloid newspaper Global Times claimed BBC reporting on Wuhan had “sparked uproar” among people living in China as it was alleged the footage included “a grayish filter in its English version.”
The use of the terms on social media has exploded in recent weeks following BBC reporting around foreign influencers who live in China. On July 11, the BBC reported on “China’s disinformation drive” and exposed how foreign pro-China influencers use YouTube and other social media to defend the country’s policies. Coordinated videos, the BBC reported, had appeared on the influencers’ YouTube channels to defend China’s treatment of Uyghurs. The report also said many of the influencers have appeared in videos for CGTN, the country’s state broadcaster.
The attack against the BBC has even attracted the attention of Chinese government officials. On July 20, Lijian Zhao, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, tweeted “#GloomFilter comes again” about images the BBC used in the disinformation article.
The images referenced in Zhao’s tweet were of pro-China vlogger Jason Lightfoot, who goes by the moniker ‘Living In China’ and has more than 160,000 subscribers on YouTube, up from 35,000 at the start of the year. In January 2021, Lightfoot was included in a report from The Times which found that a number of British YouTubers are being funded by the Chinese government to produce videos that align with the country’s politics. It’s something that Lightfoot has denied. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Lightfoot’s videos include English-language titles such as “Western Media Lies about China” and “Does Western Media Hate China?” He has also produced multiple videos criticizing media reporting about the Uyghur genocide. (In June, more than 40 countries on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council said they are ''gravely concerned” about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.) These videos sit alongside others of Lightfoot walking the streets of China, the country’s response to Covid-19 and the country’s “BEST Train Network in the World.” In response to the BBC article on disinformation, he made a 12-minute video claiming the picture of him “has been altered by the BBC” and that the organization was spreading “lies.”
The BBC said it would not comment on the details of the Recorded Future research. In February, when BBC World News was banned in China, the organization defended itself by rejecting accusations of bias and arguing that “access to accurate and impartial news is a fundamental human right.”
And it isn’t just the BBC facing increasing hostility in China. In the last year at least 20 journalists have been expelled or forced to leave China. Wright says the influence operation against the BBC is contributing to a growing anti-Western sentiment in China. “This campaign does appear to be very successful because there are journalists being harassed in mainland China,” she says. “It appears that there's this kind of mob mentality against Western media there right now.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.