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US alleges China created troll army that tried to have dissidents booted from Zoom

Charges laid against 44, including officers of China’s Cyberspace Administration

The United States Department of Justice has charged 44 people over schemes prosecutors allege were run by China’s National Police to silence opponents of the Communist Party of China.

“In the two schemes, the defendants created and used fake social media accounts to harass and intimidate PRC dissidents residing abroad,” states the Department’s announcement of the charges. The defendants also “sought to suppress the dissidents’ free speech on the platform of a U.S. telecommunications company.”

That allegation has produced two cases, United States v. Yunpeng Bai, et al. and United States v. Julien Jin, et al.

Both cases mention an entity described as “Company-1” and “US telecommunications company with headquarters in San Jose, California [that] provides telephony and online chat services”.

Julien Jin, one of the defendants, has previously been reported as being China-based employee of Zoom.

In 2020, Jin was charged after prosecutors found that in his role as Company-1’s primary liaison with Chinese law enforcement he “terminated at least four video meetings hosted on Company-1’s networks commemorating the thirty-first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, most of which were organized and attended by U.S.-based participants, such as dissidents who had participated in and survived the 1989 protests.”

Monday’s lawsuit goes further, alleging Jin “worked to identify all accounts associated with the dissident, caused meetings related to the dissident to be hosted in a ‘quarantine zone’ – that is, on a server with known lags in response time – and later worked to block all accounts associated with the dissident.”

Filings allege Jin did so at the behest of China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)

United States v. Yunpeng Bai, et al. concerns the activities of 34 MPS officers who allegedly worked for an entity called the “912 Special Project Working Group” formed to “target Chinese dissidents located throughout the world.”

The DoJ alleges the Group ran a troll farm that “created thousands of fake online personas on social media sites, including Twitter, to target Chinese dissidents through online harassment and threats.”

“Group members created and maintained the fake social media accounts through temporary email addresses, posted official PRC government content, and interacted with other online users to avoid the appearance that the Group accounts were ‘flooding’ a given social media platform,” the DoJ alleges.

The Group may even have had KPIs – Justice alleges members were offered rewards for operating troll accounts that went undetected. A filing [PDF] details how Group 912 seconded staff from other Chinese government agencies, includes documents alleged to be rosters that ensured ten trolls were on duty, and includes screenshots of some of the fake Twitter accounts the group ran – usually featuring an avatar depicting an attractive young woman.

While the DoJ has commenced the two cases, none of the defendants are in the USA. Most are in China, or elsewhere in Asia/

The chances of China allowing them to be extradited to face the charges is witheringly tiny.

While US authorities would appreciate having the defendants endure a trial, announcing these cases satisfies a secondary purpose of letting China know that American investigators know what they’re up to. Indeed, the filings include photos of spreadsheets the DoJ alleges were used by Group 912 to organise its troll accounts and track staff performance.

No information about how such intimate documents were obtained is revealed, but Beijing can now glimpse what the US was able to obtain.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Pokorny for the Eastern District of New York, the jurisdiction where the actions have been filed, thanked Company-1 for its cooperation in the government’s investigation. Thanks, Zoom. Probably. ®

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