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.
Belgian magazine Knack reported on a string of fake news websites across the bloc that published pieces in support of the Chinese tech giant, which is facing pushback from European lawmakers and concerns from security authorities over risks associated with its dominant role in providing telecoms equipment to European operators.
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.
The network of websites follows earlier revelations by disinformation research firm Graphika about the existence of a parallel network of fake social media accounts and doctored online identities that spread content aimed at convincing policymakers that Western markets should stay open to Huawei.
“What these latest revelations from Knack appear to show is that Huawei has been engaged in a widespread online campaign of deception to bolster its campaign for inclusion in the building of European 5G networks,” said Michiel van Hulten, head of Transparency International’s Brussels office.
Van Hulten called it an “astroturfing campaign,” a term used to describe the use of front organizations and fake identities to mask who is behind a lobby campaign. He said it “only seems to prove [security services’] point: Huawei can’t be trusted.”
A Huawei spokesperson said “we’re following the report [in Knack]. We’ll study this carefully. There is already an investigation happening as we speak.”
The spokesperson added “Huawei is a big company with 190,000 employees in 180 countries. This is clearly a complex company.”
A history of fake networks
Starting in December, dubious ads by top Huawei executives alerted telecom policy watchers in Belgium.
Around Christmas, a series of promoted tweets by a Huawei executive criticized new 5G security policies across Europe, notably in Belgium. The tweets promoted articles that floated unsubstantiated claims of corruption in Belgian public procurement and slamming the country for “excluding certain 5G equipment suppliers … as a move to please the United States.”
They appeared on the website dwire.eu, which contained a number of fake articles to prop up the website’s archives. A lot of the content was written by what appeared to be fake profiles. The website also listed a fake address.
After catching the eye of the researchers, dwire.eu was cleaned up by its operators, who deleted many articles dated before December 2020. The articles that were promoted in December were attributed to new authors.
In February, disinformation researcher Elise Thomas found that dwire.eu shared a Google Adsense account with 11 other websites. The website domains were registered on the same day, December 21, according to Thomas. Many carried auto-translated content on the topics of 5G and Huawei.
Knack found a handful of other websites hosting the same opinion pieces written by Huawei officials next to a bunch of fake or plagiarized news articles, including on the website of an “organization” called Green For Europe, at greenforeu.com. The website listed a fake address as its headquarters and plagiarized a mission statement by an unrelated NGO. It also plagiarized an article that appeared on the European Environment Agency website in 2015.
All the websites hosted opinion articles by Huawei executives, and were actively shared by other executives working for the Chinese tech giant. The company’s official accounts also regularly tweeted out links to the opinion articles.
Other elements also suggest a link between the telecoms giant and the websites: A recently-deleted Facebook page linked to dwire.eu was named “Huawei Advisor” and was linked to a related website with the same name. When contacted by Knack, an administrator of the web domain said an official in Huawei’s Brussels office near the EU institutions provided some content for the websites.
Asked if the company or its employees were involved in running the websites, Huawei’s press office declined to comment.
A number of pages have been deleted or changed from the websites in past weeks.
Huawei has actively promoted its views on a number of legitimate news websites across Europe too. (POLITICO Europe has published promoted content written by Huawei officials in the past.) POLITICO reported earlier that the company has a budget for advertising and media buys that puts it in the highest rank of corporate spenders globally.
Paying news websites to publish articles that promote a corporate view is a widespread practice. The list of websites reported Wednesday differs from this practice in the sense that they are almost entirely made up of false, misleading or plagiarized content and other elements to give them the appearance of legitimate news websites.
Mark Scott contributed reporting.
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