London | Edwin Vermulst, a trade lawyer in Brussels, did not think twice before he agreed to write an article for Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, that would criticise a Belgian policy that threatened to box the company out of lucrative contracts. He had worked with the company for years.
After the article was published December 17 on a Dutch-language website, he moved on to other work. “That was the beginning and end of my involvement,” he said.
Little did he know that the article would take on a life of its own. It soon became part of a covert pro-Huawei influence campaign in Belgium about 5G networks, the high-speed wireless technology at the centre of a geopolitical dispute between the United States and China.
First, at least 14 Twitter accounts posing as telecommunications experts, writers and academics shared articles by Vermulst and many others attacking draft Belgium legislation that would limit “high risk” vendors like Huawei from building the country’s 5G system, according to Graphika, a research firm that studies misinformation and fake social media accounts. The pro-Huawei accounts used computer-generated profile pictures, a telltale sign of inauthentic activity.
Next, Huawei officials retweeted the fake accounts, giving the articles even wider reach to policymakers, journalists and business leaders. Kevin Liu, Huawei’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 over three weeks in December, according to Graphika. Huawei’s official account in Europe, with more than 5 million followers, did so 47 times.
The effort suggests a new twist in social media manipulation, said Ben Nimmo, a Graphika investigator who helped identify the pro-Huawei campaign. Tactics once used mainly for government objectives — like Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election — are being adapted to achieve corporate goals.
“It’s business rather than politics,” Nimmo said. “It’s not one country targeting another country. It looks like an operation to promote a major multinational’s interests — and to do it against a European state.“
Twitter removes accounts
Graphika, which provided research for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian disinformation, said there was not enough evidence to identify who was behind the pro-Huawei operation.
Huawei said in a statement that it had started 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,” the company said.
“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.“
Twitter said it had removed the fake accounts after Graphika alerted it to the campaign December 30.
“Platform manipulation is strictly prohibited under the Twitter rules,” the company said in a statement. “If and when we have clear evidence, we will take action on accounts associated with this practice, which may include permanent suspension.“
Target of Trump
Huawei, the crown jewel of China’s technology industry, has suffered from a sustained US campaign to keep its equipment from being used in 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 for spying. Huawei has strenuously denied those accusations.
The Trump administration took several steps to hobble Huawei, including an effort to cut off its supply of critical semiconductors — policies that the Biden administration hasn’t committed itself to retaining.
Britain announced a ban of Huawei products last year; Germany and other European countries are debating restrictions of their own.
The 5G contracts are expected to be worth billions of dollars.
Clumsily executed effort
Belgium, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, illustrates the risk Huawei faces across Europe, the company’s biggest market outside of China.
Until now, Huawei and Chinese company ZTE had dominated Belgium’s telecommunications-equipment market, according to Strand Consult, a research firm. But as the Belgian government considers new restrictions, wireless operators in the country are shifting 5G deals to rival companies.
“They fear this could spread to other parts of the world,” said John Strand, founder of Strand Consult, which works with many wireless companies.
Nimmo said the pro-Huawei effort in Belgium had been clumsily executed and easy to identify. But it shows, he said, how underhanded internet campaigns try to launder seemingly legitimate material like Vermulst’s article through a mesh of websites and fake social media accounts to give it an air of impartiality and authenticity.
Graphika discovered the pro-Huawei effort after spotting suspicious posts about Belgium’s 5G policy from Twitter accounts used in an earlier pro-China operation. Belgian magazine Knack and Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International in Brussels, also identified suspicious efforts to spread pro-Huawei information.
The 14 fake accounts amplified by Huawei officials spread positive articles about the company and negative views of Belgium’s 5G policy. The three-week campaign appeared to be 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 included bland profile pictures along with career information. Many had more than 1000 followers.
But on closer inspection, investigators identified problems with the accounts. Many of their followers appeared to be bots. And the pictures had the hallmarks of being created by artificial intelligence software, with perfectly centred photos but small imperfections, like asymmetrical glasses.
Online businesses sell these kinds of photos of fake people, which can avoid the risk of detection that using pictures of real individuals can bring.
The fake accounts shared articles and commentary from different online publications, including EU Reporter, which publishes government news to its own website and affiliates like London Globe and New York Globe.
“If the Belgium government excludes specific suppliers, who will pay for it?” read the headline of one news story published on different EU Reporter websites.
Colin Stevens, publisher of EU Reporter, said in an email that he had “no knowledge of any fake Twitter accounts promoting our articles”. Stevens said that Huawei had paid EU Reporter to publish opinion articles in the past but that those were always labelled with disclaimers. The Belgian 5G stories were independently assigned without Huawei involvement, he said.
“EU Reporter would never knowingly be part of a disinformation campaign,” Stevens said.
In a few instances, investigators found articles like Vermulst’s, which Huawei paid for and included disclaimers about the financial arrangement. Other articles critical of the 5G policy appeared on websites that accept user-generated content without review, alongside author pictures that were the same as the computer-generated images in the fake Twitter profiles.
Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said operations like this would become more common as disinformation became increasingly commercialised.
In a recent report, Oxford University researchers identified 63 instances in which public relations firms were involved in online disinformation operations in 2020. The work is typically on behalf of political figures or governments, he said, but can be applied to businesses.
Follow the money
“The flow of money is increasingly there,” Howard said. “Large-scale social media influence operations are now part of the communications tool kit for any large global corporation.“
In Belgium, the campaign appeared to have little effect beyond drawing unwanted attention to Huawei’s lobbying efforts. Policymakers have shown no signs of backing away from plans to limit Huawei’s access to the 5G networks. The draft legislation must now be considered by the country’s Parliament.
Vermulst, the trade lawyer, said he hadn’t known about the fake social media campaign until being contacted for this article. And while he called the effort “silly” and “stupid”, he hoped to continue working for Huawei.
“Lawyers get paid for legal opinions,” he said. “Once that article is in the public domain, anybody can do with it what they want.“
The New York Times