A small cluster of pro-Huawei Twitter bots reportedly launched a smear campaign attacking the Belgian government’s plan to box out “high-risk” suppliers like Huawei from building the country’s 5G network, according to the latest report from social media research firm Graphika.
Graphika uncovered the plot in December after Twitter accounts that had been used in a pro-China campaign the firm was investigating began retweeting posts about Belgium’s 5G policy. At least 14 Twitter accounts were involved, all of them employing similar tactics to appear legit. The accounts used fake identities, posed as Belgium-based tech experts and journalists, and were several years old but only started posting in late 2020. They also all used seemingly bland profile pictures that, upon further inspection, had several telltale signs of being computer-generated such as asymmetries on both sides of the face and a lack of background detail, Graphika wrote.
The accounts reportedly alternated between trash-talking the Belgian government’s proposed ban, singing Huawei’s praises, and sharing articles sponsored by Huawei itself. Unlike other bot networks, Graphika’s investigators found evidence suggesting that this one was manually operated, meaning it was likely some poor schmuk’s job to type up and push out Huawei’s propaganda tweets. The whole campaign lasted for about three weeks in December, presumably to correspond to the Belgian government’s Dec. 30 deadline for public consultation on the draft law. While Graphika concludes that the operation was a flop and “did not gain substantial traction,” the bots reached millions when their posts were retweeted by Huawei president Kevin Liu and the company’s official Twitter account.
However, Graphika’s report stops short of concluding that Huawei or a related entity had anything to do with it. (Though it certainly looks the case). Huawei said in a statement to the New York Times that it has launched an internal investigation “to try to find out what exactly has happened and if there has been any inappropriate behaviour.”
“Huawei has clear social media policies based on international best practice, and we take any suggestion that they have not been followed very seriously,” Huawei told the outlet. “Some social media and online activity has been brought to our attention suggesting we may have fallen short of these policies and of our wider Huawei values of openness, honesty and transparency.”
The company did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Under Belgium’s new restrictions, so-called “high-risk” suppliers, as designated by the European Union, are largely banned from contributing to the country’s 5G network. Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese firm, both fall under this category, which is defined as equipment makers that could potentially be “subject to interference from a non-EU country” through government mandates or a lack of “democratic checks and balances” in their home country.
All Twitter accounts involved in the campaign have now been suspended. Twitter told the Times it took down the 14 fake accounts in December after Graphika notified them of the campaign.
“Platform manipulation is strictly prohibited under the Twitter rules,” the company said in a statement to Times. “If and when we have clear evidence, we will take action on accounts associated with this practice, which may include permanent suspension.”