As tensions heat up between Beijing and Canberra, an overseas religious organisation with a vested interest in the conflict is using social media to influence Australians, a groundbreaking report has found.
Facebook pages run by supporters of Falun Gong, the Asian-based religious movement, are running a highly sophisticated and co-ordinated campaign to target and influence Australian opinions on China, the ABC and the leadership of Victoria.
The pages use different methods to spread misinformation, including paying for ads that are critical of the Victorian government’s handling of COVID-19 as well as the ABC, which ran an investigation in July into alleged harmful practices associated with Falun Gong.
It appears the pages are boosted by fake accounts which ‘like’ and ‘share’ the content – which is largely “fake news”.
Falun Gong is a quasi-religious movement that originated in China in the late 1980s.
Followers are meant to practise truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, but have also been linked to powerful conspiracy campaigns in American’s conservative circles.
Followers are persecuted within mainland China and are backed by huge international media outlets The Epoch Times, which campaigns against the Chinese Communist Party.
Comparing two different pages, one operated from within Australia and the other from Vietnam, the reports found a sophisticated campaign to infiltrate Australian communities and spread misinformation.
“These pages are using different strategies, including paid advertisements, systematically sharing content into Australian Facebook groups (including fringe and conspiracy groups), and attempting to drive traffic to Epoch Times and Falun Gong-affiliated sites,” the report said.
“Falun Gong and its supporters in Australia are entitled to participate in the national conversation … However, the use of covert tactics and inauthentic social media activity in an effort to conceal who is behind those efforts isn’t acceptable in democratic societies.”
Social media is increasingly being used by foreign actors to spread misinformation and confuse public debate on contentious issues in Australia, but this is the first time non-state actors have been caught.
Last year, Facebook removed hundreds of accounts with ties to Epoch Media Group that were targeting American users.
The network of accounts and pages, which was known as “The Beauty of Life” (or “TheBL”), used fake photos generated by artificial intelligence to spread pro-Trump, anti-communism messages in localised groups.
“Our investigation linked this activity to Epoch Media Group, a US-based media organisation, and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf,” Facebook said in a statement. “The BL is now banned from Facebook.”
At the time, Facebook said Epoch Media Group spent $9.5 million on advertisements spreading content through the pages and accounts that were taken down.
A separate report into the accounts found a desire to influence the upcoming 2020 election.
In a statement, Epoch publisher Stephen Gregory denied Facebook’s accusations.
“The Epoch Media Group has no connection with the website BL,” Mr Gregory said.
“The Epoch Times and The BL media companies are unaffiliated. The BL was founded by a former employee, and employs some of our former employees.”
A major concern for researchers in Australia is that the pages are targeting QAnon and anti-vax communities.
Author of the ASPI report Elise Thomas said both pages had been sharing into popular conspiracy groups in Australia where people were likely to believe them.
“The worrying thing about this is the conspiracy pro-Trump side of Falun Gong feeds into QAnon and its rejection of modern medicine feeds into anti-vaxxer groups,” Ms Thomas said.
“Like how we’ve seen anti-vaxxers infiltrate mothers groups – these small communities, they are relatively tight and that means it’s quite easy to spread misguided beliefs.”
She said targeting localised groups meant these pages could use the network to gain trust and influence people’s opinions.
“That’s why they’re dangerous.”
The groups were using the geo-political tension with China to drum up anti-Chinese sentiment – and interestingly, were far more sophisticated than pro-Chinese actors on Facebook.
“They’re so much better than Chinese state actors,” she said.
“They have a better understanding of Facebook. They know what narratives travel through social bloodlines.”