In January, US media reported on a covert online influence campaign to sway Belgian telecommunications policy in favor of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. According to a New York Times report:
January 29, 2021 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 criticize 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 Dec. 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 center 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 Mr. 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.
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The report further suggests that social media manipulations, a tactic often associated with governments like China or Russia, are increasingly adopted by major multinational companies to achieve corporate goals.
Only a few weeks after the pro-Huawei influence operation was uncovered, US media reported about yet another Europe-wide disinformation campaign involving a network of fake websites peddling pro-Huawei content. According to a Politico report:
February 24, 2021 Huawei’s European executives have been promoting content published on more than a dozen fabricated news websites in Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal, new research showed on Wednesday. […]
Disinformation researchers found 16 websites that seem to be operated by the same people, and were registered at the same time in December, often sharing the same or similar articles written by Huawei executives, Knack reported. Several websites also plagiarized articles from local media in Europe and even from European Union agencies to fill the same websites.
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In 2020, the former US administration launched a campaign to urge European nations to bar Huawei, a leading Chinese technology company, from Europe’s 5G networks, arguing that the Chinese government could use its technology for spying. While countries such as Spain, Sweden, or Hungary are building their 5G network with Huawei equipment, countries such as Belgium, the UK, or Germany have excluded the Chinese company from its 5G network buildup.