Reuters journalists fake online accounts to approach Chinese activists

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Reuters journalists had their identities forged by an unknown person or persons who then used fake social media accounts to engage with Chinese activists on multiple online platforms over several months.

The false representations of the two reporters, Shanghai bureau chief Brenda Goh and Hong Kong-based correspondent Jessie Pang, in late November appeared on platforms such as Instagram and the Telegram messaging app .

The impersonator or impersonators were seeking information about a group linked to protests the same month against China’s strict COVID-19 controls, according to screenshots and multiple accounts provided to Reuters.

A Chinese activist and dissident artist based in Australia known as Badiucao first disclosed the imitations on Saturday on Twitter.

A fake account was created on Instagram and one on Telegram claiming to be Pang, according to screengrabs from Badiucao seen by Reuters. Another activist told Reuters he had been chatting with a fake persona of Goh via Telegram for three months.

Badiucao tweeted that he had been approached on Telegram by someone claiming to be Pang, asking for information about a Chinese-language online platform called Citizens Daily that carries protest art.

“Hi everyone,” an impostor wrote in a Telegram chat room, according to screenshots seen by Reuters that were provided by Badiucao. “I’m Jessie with Reuters.” The impostor then asked two members of the group, “Do you have any ties to Citizens Daily?”

The impostor tried to gain the group’s trust by giving details of Pang’s history and recent work, Badiucao said.

Badiucao said he became suspicious of the language and questions from the impostor, however, and asked to verify the person’s identity through Pang’s verified Twitter account.

The impostor said he had no control over the Twitter account, as it was “managed by a Reuters team,” a screenshot of the conversation provided by Badiucao showed.

The person then sent Badiucao, a prominent political cartoonist among the protesters, a photo of Pang’s expired photo ID.

Reuters could not establish who was behind the fake journalists. After the fakes were exposed, all their known accounts and conversations were deleted. None of the official social media accounts of Goh or Pang appear to have been hacked.

A Reuters spokesman said: “We are investigating the impersonation and theft of Reuters journalists’ press credentials and will take appropriate action.”

A spokesman for Instagram owner Meta Platforms Inc said the platform had removed the impostor’s account, declining to comment further. Telegram did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on the impersonations of journalists’ accounts on that platform.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Security Bureau said: “Members of the public are encouraged to report to the Police if there is a suspected crime. The Police will take appropriate action on reports of crimes as a result.”

A Citizens Daily administrator, responding to a request for comment, said the group suspected Chinese state involvement in the imitations. The administrator declined to give his name, citing the risk of reprisal, and offered no evidence to support this claim.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China Cyberspace Administration and Public Security Bureau did not respond to requests for comment on Citizens Daily’s claim or the impersonation of journalists.

Citizens Daily had been a conduit for information sharing among protesters during the November demonstrations in several Chinese cities against Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, some of whom called for President Xi Jinping’s resignation and the end of the government of the Communist Party.

Civil disobedience has been unprecedented in mainland China since Xi assumed power a decade ago, sparking a wave of arrests and a wide-ranging security crackdown.

An activist with the Twitter handle “accelflopping” told Reuters that an impostor claiming to be Goh contacted him via Telegram. To gain their trust, the person showed a photo of Goh’s passport and provided other personal details, including Goh’s nationality.

This activist, who is based overseas, said he only learned of the subterfuge from Badiucao on Saturday after communicating with the “fake Brenda” since late November about his group’s plans for the future events. They spoke via Telegram text message, apart from a brief phone call, he said.

He declined to disclose his name, citing sensitivity. A person with the Twitter handle “775lighting” also tweeted that she had been approached several times since February 4 by a “fake Jessie” Pang, who sought to “steal sensitive details” about her protest activities.

Reuters could not reach this person for comment.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by William Mallard)

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