The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese businessman with links to Steve Bannon is driving force for a sprawling disinformation network, researchers say

Guo Wengui, living in self-exile in New York City, is at the center of a digital web pushing election and covid falsehoods, according to Graphika research

Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, right, with Chinese businessman Guo Wengui in New York in November 2018. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
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A sprawling online network tied to Chinese businessman Guo Wengui has become a potent platform for disinformation in the United States, attacking the safety of coronavirus vaccines, promoting false election-fraud claims and spreading baseless QAnon conspiracies, according to research published Monday by the network analysis company Graphika.

The report, provided in advance to The Washington Post, details a network that Graphika says amplifies the views of Guo, a Chinese real estate developer whose association with former Trump White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon became a focus of news coverage last year after Bannon was arrested aboard Guo’s yacht on federal fraud charges.

Graphika said the network includes media websites such as GTV, for which Guo last year publicly said he was raising funds, along with thousands of social media accounts that Graphika said amplify content in a coordinated fashion. The network also includes more than a dozen local-action groups over which Guo has publicly claimed an oversight role, Graphika found.

Graphika’s research sheds more light on Guo, a onetime billionaire real estate developer who, in addition to his relationship with Bannon, has drawn attention for the confusing mix of disinformation and invective he has broadcast since moving to the United States, including contradictory attacks on both the Chinese Communist Party and anti-CCP dissidents in the West.

The Graphika report “is an important forensic analysis of the ways that rich and politically motivated people can manipulate social media,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Other analysts also have identified the network as boosting Guo-related media and aligned political messaging. Alethea Group, a firm that tracks disinformation and other online threats, said it had detected an effort in November to spread disinformation in Spanish.

Lisa Kaplan, Alethea Group’s founder and chief executive, said the network’s fluency in American politics and ability to make use of other languages beyond English suggest it could remain a powerful asset.

“These groups don’t just lie dormant after an election, they shift focus and morph topics to maintain their relevance so they can be activated to achieve the goals of those who control them,” she said.

Graphika, which has conducted research on Internet use for a wide variety of organizations including Facebook and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called Guo the “linchpin” of the network, though it stopped short of detailing his exact role. “He is the leading personality, appears to define goals and messaging, and is positioned as a wise leader who should be admired and followed,” the report says.

Guo is the featured speaker in many of the videos and texts disseminated by the network, including some that have sought to undermine the scientific consensus about the causes and remedies of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a video posted in April on GNews, a media website Guo has publicly suggested he helped establish, Guo calls vaccines against the coronavirus “fake” and “poison.”

Images disseminated by the network on Instagram have portrayed coronavirus vaccines as grenades, bullets and handguns. Another meme that circulated on Instagram in January warned, “Don’t trust the vaccine, the medical industry is completely controlled by a special interest.”

Daniel Podhaskie, a spokesman for Guo, denied Guo controlled content on GTV or GNews.

“They are not platforms whose content is managed or directed by Mr. Guo or any single individual or company,” he said by email. “GTV is an online video sharing platform with posts mainly in Chinese Mandarin. Similar to Twitter and Facebook, the GTV video hosting platform allows users to create, upload, view, like/dislike, comment, and share videos … implying that Mr. Guo is responsible for everything that is posted on this platform is ludicrous.”

“Mr. Guo posts his own videos on GTV and does not control or coordinate what subscribers or other GTV bloggers do with them,” he added.

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Information disseminated by the entities that Graphika defined as the network focuses primarily on attacking China’s political leadership, but the network also has played a loud, persistent and largely overlooked role in U.S. politics, including in fueling falsehoods — repeatedly rejected by investigators and courts — that widespread fraud marred the 2020 election.

Graphika said its analysis found thousands of accounts apparently working together across social media platforms in a well-coordinated effort to push selected themes in a manner that amplifies their reach. Many of the accounts “appear to be run by real people but solely amplify Guo-related content,” Graphika said.

People who describe themselves as Guo supporters in Chinese expatriate communities in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries help translate and prepare the videos and memes that the network disseminates, Graphika researchers said.

Dozens of corporate entities, media organizations and activist groups participate in the network, Graphika said, including Saraca Media Group Inc., a Delaware-registered company that is listed as the entity offering the GNews and GTV apps in Apple’s App Store. Saraca also owns Guo Media, an entity that agreed to pay Bannon an annual fee of $1 million for consulting services, according to a 2018 contract published by Axios.

Asked whether Guo is a direct or beneficial owner of Saraca, GTV Media Group or the other companies identified by Graphika, Podhaskie said: “Mr. Guo does not own or have any employment, oversight or formal consulting/advisory relationship with any of these entities. He has served in an unpaid capacity, as GTV Media’s sponsor, and as an unpaid informal advisor and key host for content.”

Podhaskie is listed as president and director of Saraca in a document filed in February with Delaware’s secretary of state. Podhaskie declined to comment on that.

The Graphika report identifies videos posted online in which Guo claims a leading role in some operations, including an April 2020 clip of Guo speaking about overseeing the sale of shares in media outlet GTV.

“We mainly accept investments from our friends,” Guo says in the video, which concludes with written instructions for investors to send the signed shareholder agreement to “Mr. Guo Wengui’s WhatsApp number.”

Guo also refers to Bannon as a GTV board member in the video. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in the past has called Guo “the toughest Chinese opponent the CCP has ever encountered.”

Last year, GNews quoted Guo as saying, “Our GNews viewer and registration numbers grow by multiples every week. … The chance for our products to grow rapidly and make an enormous profit is boundless!”

Teng Biao, a Chinese dissident and human rights scholar at Hunter College in New York, who was harassed at his New Jersey home for weeks last year by protesters he said were sent by Guo, said the Graphika research is particularly valuable in identifying the various companies and entities that appear to be working in tandem.

“Guo and his media have played a very active role in spreading misinformation related to Chinese and American politics and society,” Teng said. In addition to circulating broadly in English, the material “has significantly polluted the public discussion on Chinese-language social media,” including the popular WeChat app, he added.

The protests at Teng’s home began after Guo recorded videos encouraging his followers to “eliminate” roughly 20 people he deemed “traitors,” including Teng. Other dissidents named in the videos reported being targeted by similar protests that on one occasion turned violent, The Post previously reported.

Asked by The Post about the protests last year, Guo appeared to confirm his involvement, though he denied any role in violence. “To be clear, I have never condoned any type of violence towards any individuals. Myself, the anti-CCP supporters, and the New Federal State of China movement are exercising our First Amendment right to expose and oppose those who support the CCP,” he said at the time, referring to a pro-democracy movement he created with Bannon with the stated aim of replacing CCP rule.

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Guo supporters who help produce and spread the network’s memes and videos are a combination of volunteers and paid workers who refer to themselves as “ants,” working for what Guo has called a movement of “whistleblowers” challenging Chinese government power, Graphika said. The researchers titled their report, “Ants in a Web: Deconstructing Guo Wengui’s Online ‘Whistleblower Movement.’ ”

The “ants” appear to coordinate their work on chat apps, including Discord, WhatsApp and Telegram, and to post content across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites, Graphika said. The researchers found identical posts appearing almost simultaneously from different Facebook accounts, a sign of tight coordination. But the researchers came to believe this work was not “inauthentic,” a term meaning that those posting content are not expressing their own views — often a trigger for takedowns or other enforcement actions.

Alethea Group’s analysis said accounts in one of the Discord channels tied to the network encouraged participants to post campaign-related content in Spanish. One message on Nov. 2, 2020, asked, “On the last day before the election, can we spread the truth … as much as possible in Spanish?"

Alethea Group said users active in the network employed so-called “social listening tools” to monitor popular phrases and the performance of news articles — part of an effort to maximize their own reach. One of the Discord channels also contained instructions for creating fake Twitter accounts, and for spacing out tweets to avoid the platform’s automated detection technologies.

Accounts said to be part of the network have faced sporadic sanctions by social media companies, including the closing of 150 Twitter accounts for “spam and platform manipulation” during the 2020 presidential election. Graphika found concerted efforts to sidestep platform rules by, for example, posting modified web addresses that would not face automatic bans by Facebook or Twitter.

“Twitter’s top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant about coordinated activity on our service,” spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said. Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Guo supporters are organized into local action groups known as “Himalaya farms,” according to Graphika and Guo’s public statements. In a September 2020 video clip posted on GNews, Guo said the Himalaya Standing Committee oversees the network of farms. “If you name your organization after a Himalaya Farm without our approval, we will soon cut our ties with you,” he said.

Graphika said the Guo-affiliated network became more involved in U.S. political activity in the run-up to the November election. On Sept. 25, Lude Media, an online program that Graphika identified as part of the network, began reporting about allegedly damaging content purportedly recovered from Hunter Biden’s computer — three weeks before the New York Post became the first news organization to report on the topic, Graphika said.

GNews also published many negative claims about Hunter Biden, including false allegations that he engaged in child sexual abuse.

After the election, content across the network embraced President Donald Trump’s false election-fraud claims and the related #StoptheSteal hashtag, and promoted Trump’s plans for a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, Graphika found. During the rally and subsequent storming of the U.S. Capitol, GTV featured live streams of the action, which Guo supporters promoted on social media, along with material calling members of the mob “patriots.”

Later, GNews and other wings of the network pushed false conspiracies that the violence was the work of antifa, Graphika found.

Regarding the coronavirus pandemic, Graphika said the network has amplified the unsubstantiated claim that China purposely manufactured the virus as a bioweapon. Chinese scientist Li-Meng Yan, whose spreading of unproven claims about the origins of the novel coronavirus sparked a pitched backlash among American medical researchers last year, is regularly featured in content and has openly affiliated herself with two nonprofits that Guo announced he was founding in 2018.

Posts on the network have pushed the use of the unproven treatment hydroxychloroquine to fight covid-19 — GNews published comments from Guo saying he himself has taken the drug — and repeatedly attacked the safety of coronavirus vaccines.

One video released on GNews in April by a Himalaya farm in Toronto said Chinese authorities “quickly developed and exported another biochemical virus in the form of a vaccine.” The video included images of the AstraZeneca vaccine and clips of Guo saying “How many people will die? The vaccine is a real poison,” and “The vaccines are all fake. … There is no vaccine, never ever. Because it is the bioweapon.”

Graphika said the network also has “continuously amplified QAnon-aligned content,” including by posting an “extensive collection” of QAnon videos on GTV.

“Mr. Guo does not work with, know, or seek guidance from QAnon,” Podhaskie said.

Graphika said the network also includes the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society — two nonprofits that Guo said he was launching in 2018. Bannon was to lead the Rule of Law Society, which would be backed by a $100 million donation from Guo, the two men said at a news conference at the time.

On their websites, the Rule of Law groups say they collect donations to provide support to people who have run afoul of Chinese authorities. Graphika found that donations to the groups were in some cases mandatory before a Guo supporter could join a Himalaya farm.

Podhaskie said: “Perhaps the above requirement, if true, are attempts to filter out potential CCP agents from legitimate supporters.”

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Julie Tate contributed to this report.