Thursday February 4, 2021
Ben Nimmo, Ira Hubert and Yang Cheng
Chinese Spam Network Finally Starts to Gain Some Traction
The sprawling pro-Chinese propaganda network that Graphika has dubbed “Spamouflage” and exposed multiple times over the past two years has begun to break out of its echo chamber of fake accounts and reach real social media users, including some heavyweight influencers, with hundreds of videos that praise China, criticize the United States, and attack the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.
The network’s successes are still sporadic - a few tweets have reached viral influencers, and a few dozen videos on YouTube channels have garnered significant followings - but, for the first time, its content has had measurable reach. Moreover, the audiences it has reached are widespread and include influencers in Latin America, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. Combined with the sheer scale of the network, and the fact that it has reconstituted itself after repeated takedowns, these features mark Spamouflage as a persistent and increasingly assertive online presence with a limited but growing ability to engage real users.
This is Graphika’s fourth report on Spamouflage, following our initial exposure of the network’s activity on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in September 2019, its pivot to comment on COVID-19 in February 2020 and its launch of English-language videos in June 2020. Throughout the last six months, the three platforms have taken down swathes of Spamouflage assets, often within hours of posting. Nevertheless, the network has persisted and evolved. Our latest report is prompted by several key developments.
First is the fact that Spamouflage has finally begun to break out of the echo chamber of fake accounts that it controls. We use the phrase “begun to” advisedly: only a handful of assets, out of the many thousands that the network has deployed, have successfully engaged real users. Nevertheless, in the past three months Spamouflage has been amplified by, among others, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, a Pakistani politician, a senior figure at Huawei Europe, UK commentator and former member of parliament George Galloway, and four YouTube channels for Chinese viewers with tens of thousands of followers. This is the first time that we have observed Spamouflage content reaching external audiences in this way.
Second, and underpinning the first point, is a tactical shift. While Spamouflage continued to use hundreds of fake accounts with little or no attempt at persona development, it began in parallel to experiment with persona accounts which looked and behaved as though they were real people, and thus gave a veneer of authenticity to what they posted. Such accounts included ones that looked like photogenic celebrities; Chinese mainland commentators known to support CCP rule over Hong Kong and Taiwan; an American businessman; a Latin American soap opera; and young women interested in geopolitics (increasingly a Spamouflage speciality). These accounts facilitated genuine engagement with the content, and were the main drivers of its impact.
Third is the fact that Spamouflage is increasingly entwined with Chinese state officials and narratives. In the past five months, the network has expanded the number of themes it covers to include issues such as U.S.-China rivalry, arms control, and economic development. Videos posted by the network closely tracked with Chinese official messaging: for example, after President Xi Jinping celebrated the 30th anniversary of the “development and opening-up” of Shanghai’s Pudong district on November 12, Spamouflage assets posted several videos in English and Chinese celebrating the district. After reports emerged on January 14 of the low efficacy of China’s COVID-19 vaccine, Spamouflage began launching videos that questioned the safety of the U.S.-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Hundreds of times in recent months, Spamouflage Twitter accounts have been amplified by Chinese diplomats. There is no evidence to suggest that the diplomats were knowingly promoting content from fake accounts, but Spamouflage increasingly resembles a state-aligned propaganda network that boosts, and is boosted by, the Chinese government.
Fourth, and a related point: Spamouflage is developing an increasingly aggressive and confrontational tone towards the United States. More videos portrayed the U.S. in a negative light than focused on any other theme, presenting it as law-breaking, hegemonistic, racked by civil strife, and failing in the fight against COVID-19. Six English-language videos mentioned “civil war” in the headline; two called the U.S. the “greatest threat” to world peace. After anti-democracy rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and left five people dead, Spamouflage responded with videos that called it a “beautiful sight,” a mocking reference to the way U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong (Chinese state outlet the Global Times made the same point). Just days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, one Spamouflage video claimed that America’s political tensions “made the world see the hypocrisy and unbearable [sic] of ‘American democracy’ again.” At least two others defended China’s sanctioning of 28 U.S. politicians for “violating China’s sovereignty.”
This reflects the broader rhetorical escalation between the United States and China over the past six months, and does not appear to have been assuaged by the change of U.S. administration. If U.S.-China tensions continue, Spamouflage is likely to continue the drumbeat of confrontation.
Fifth is the sheer volume of content this network produces. Between February 9, 2020, and January 26, 2021, assets that we can attribute to the Spamouflage network with high confidence posted over 1,400 unique videos in Mandarin, Cantonese, or English with Chinese subtitles. Many more remain to be discovered. They typically reacted to world events within 36 hours, or even less: a Spamouflage video on November 6, 2020, referenced protests in New York on November 5, while a Spamouflage video on January 7, 2021, included footage of the US Capitol riots that had happened just 17 hours earlier. The volume and speed of content suggests a network with significant resources.
Finally, one point about the network’s U.S. targeting deserves attention. As noted above, it frequently attacked the United States. In the summer of 2020, many of those attacks were aimed at then-President Donald Trump. By contrast, in October and November, Trump was barely mentioned, and the brunt of the attacks fell on the “worst Secretary of State in history” (a term Spamouflage used repeatedly), Mike Pompeo. After Biden’s inauguration, some videos continued to attack Trump and Pompeo, but others attacked the Democratic Party. The unifying theme that underlay such posts was that America is broken, and American democracy is not a model that any country should emulate, regardless of which party rules in Washington: the storming of the Capitol “tore the false mask of American democracy to pieces," as one video narration stated.
In essence, rather than being a vehicle for election interference, Spamouflage is a cheerleader for Chinese state narratives of China’s rise and America’s fall.