Social media apps on a smartphone
Meta has cracked down on what it identified as fake social media attempting to stir Sikh protests. Image by Glenn Hunt/AAP PHOTOS

China-based network pushed for Aust Sikh protests: Meta

James McManagan June 24, 2024

Australian Sikhs were encouraged to protest by a fake China-based social media network that has been shut down by Meta.

The social media giant says it cracked down by deleting 37 Facebook accounts, 13 pages, five groups, and nine Instagram accounts for “inauthentic behaviour”.

Meta’s quarterly threat report says the network promoted a fake protest movement called “Operation K”, which encouraged demonstrations among Australia’s 210,000-strong Sikh ethno-religious community.

It posted English and Hindi content, some manipulated by photo-editing tools or generated by artificial intelligence, criticising India’s government and supporting Sikh independence in that country.

“This operation used compromised and fake accounts – some of which were detected and disabled by our automated systems prior to our investigation – to pose as Sikhs, post content and manage Pages and Groups,” the Meta threat report says. 

“They appeared to have created a fictitious activist movement called Operation K which called for pro-Sikh protests, including in New Zealand and Australia. 

“We found and removed this activity early, before it was able to build an audience among authentic communities.”

The network also targeted Sikh communities in New Zealand, Canada, the UK, Nigeria, Pakistan and India. 

Albert Zhang, a disinformation analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the Chinese government is likely behind the network, which is probably motivated by recent border tensions with India.

He says targeting the Australian Sikhs could have adverse social impacts on the community.

“This sort of coordinated inauthentic behaviour by the Chinese government risks undermining the right of Sikhs in Australia to form independent opinions and decisions,” Mr Zhang told AAP.

“As a secondary consequence, further campaigns impersonating Sikhs may also fuel mistrust of the Sikh diaspora in Australia. “

Dr Fan Yang, an expert on technologies and minority communities at the University of Melbourne, says the report’s limited information makes Chinese government involvement unclear.

“It is hard to estimate who are behind orchestrating misinformation campaigns and what their purposes are,” Dr Yang told AAP.

She says China-originated disinformation networks could either involve government, private entities or individuals acting as “patriots”.

“Given the scale, it didn’t look like a coordinated activity or showcased any effectiveness,” Dr Yang says.

She says disinformation campaigns on private platforms such as Telegram, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are more effective because they cannot be as easily moderated.

“That are inaccessible to automated approaches and thus remain invisible to people, communities, and organisations outside the communicative circle,” Dr Yang added.

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