Beijing denies any wrongdoing: “China always respects the sovereignty of other countries”
The Chinese government has set up “the largest online disinformation operation in the world” against ordinary American citizens, politicians and business leaders. This is what emerged from a CNN investigation, which analyzed court documents and public reports from various social media companies. The wave of attacks, “often cowardly and deeply personal in nature,” were part of a well-organized and increasingly brazen campaign of intimidation by the Chinese government against US citizens.
The US State Department says the tactics are part of a broader multibillion-dollar effort, supported by Xi Jinping’s presidency, to shape the world’s information environment and silence Beijing’s critics. Victims face a barrage of tens of thousands of social media posts, calling them “traitors,” “dogs” and calling them other racist and homophobic slurs. The goal would be to push victims into a state of constant fear and paranoia. Technology and social media companies have already shut down thousands of profiles, but are struggling to contain the proliferation of bot accounts that emerge daily.
In the campaign known as “Spamouflage” or “Dragonbridge”, the hundreds of thousands of accounts spread across all major social media platforms not only persecute critics of the Chinese Communist Party, but also seek to discredit US politicians, denigrate American companies at odds with China’s interests, and hijack online conversations which could portray the CCP in a negative light. Private researchers have been tracking the campaign since its discovery more than four years ago, but only in recent months have federal prosecutors and Facebook’s parent company Meta publicly admitted that the operation had ties to Chinese police.
Meta announced in August that it had eliminated nearly 8,000 accounts linked to Spamouflage in the second quarter of 2023 alone. Google, which owns YouTube, told CNN that it had closed more than 100,000 accounts in recent years, while X’s corporate blogs tell the story blocking hundreds of thousands of “state-backed” or “state-linked” Chinese accounts. Given the relatively low cost of these operations, experts who monitor disinformation warn that the Chinese government will continue to use these tactics to try to steer online discussions towards a CCP-like narrative, with heavy criticism of Washington and the democratic value system .
Experts quoted by CNN say that in recent years there have been signs of a change in Chinese strategy. In the past, Spamouflage mainly focused on issues of national importance to China. However, recently, accounts linked to the group have fueled controversy on global issues, including developments in the United States. According to a report by the cybersecurity company Mandiant, some fake accounts posed as residents of Texas, inviting people to protest against plans to build a rare earth processing plant.
According to a report from last August, some posts referred to racism as an “indelible shame on American democracy”, denouncing the “cultural genocide against Indians” committed by the USA. Another post said former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “riddled with scandal.”
In a report last April, the US Department of Justice denounced the attempt by Chinese officials to take advantage of the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death by threatening to publish posts about his murder to “reveal the brutality of law enforcement”. in the United States. The same officials were also allegedly tasked with “working on the 2022 midterm elections and criticizing American democracy.”
Spamouflage is “evolving in tactics and themes,” said Ben Nimmo, global head of threat intelligence at Meta. “Our job is to continue to strengthen our defenses and inform people, especially in view of the election year,” Nimmo stressed.
Asked for comment on Spamouflage’s alleged links to the Beijing authorities, the spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, denied any wrongdoing: “China always respects the sovereignty of other countries. The US accusations have no factual evidence or legal basis. They are politically motivated and China firmly contests them.”