Social media analysis solution company Graphika has exposed the effort multiple times over the course of the past two years, but the anonymous Chinese network dubbed “Spamouflage” is still seeing success in reaching big-name social media personalities to spread its messaging.
Graphika describes the network’s efforts to defame the U.S. and Hong Kong, which has reached high-profile influencers in Latin America, Pakistan, the U.K. and Hong Kong, as “a persistent and increasingly assertive online presence with a limited but growing ability to engage real users.”
The international reach marked new territory for a pro-China social media network that has been operating for years, said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations for Graphika, the social media analysis firm that monitored the activity.
“For the very first time, it started to get a little bit of audience interaction,” Nimmo said.
The network’s messaging has appeared on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook since 2019, and it has posted more than 1,4000 videos in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. It launched commentary on COVID-19 in February of 2020 and English-language videos in June of 2020, according to Graphika.
Researchers noted that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube “have taken down swathes of Spamouflage assets” over the last six months, “often within hours of posting,” but the network has continued to evolve despite efforts to shut it down.
Despite the fact that only a “handful of assets” out of “many thousands” have reached real users, Camouflage has engaged Venezuela’s foreign minister, a Pakistani politician, a senior Huawei Europe representative, former U.K. Parliament member George Galloway, and four Chinese YouTube channels with large audiences, researchers found.
The Chinese network also experimented with fake accounts made to look like real users so their social media posts looked more authentic. These accounts impersonated “photogenic” celebrities, pro-CCP Chinese commentators, an American businessman, a Latin American soap opera and young women interested in geopolitics.
One of the Twitter accounts, which had a following of roughly 2,000 users mostly from Latin American, also tweeted the messaging in Spanish.
Spamouflage posted videos pushing a pro-China, anti-U.S. narrative that “closely tracked” official CCP messaging, including videos that questioned the efficacy and safety of the U.S.-made Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. Chinese officials amplified Spamouflage Twitter accounts “hundreds of times.”
“The safety of the … vaccine was in doubt, but it was quickly approved,” one of the pro-China videos posted on Jan. 21 claimed in a headline. Other posts praised China’s response to the pandemic, while criticizing America’s ability to contain the deadly virus.
“There’s this cherry-picking of narratives and events that make the U.S. look really bad,” Nimmo said.
Graphika also found videos that called the U.S. the “greatest threat” to world peace, called the Jan. 6 Capitol riots a “beautiful sight,” mocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and called for the sanctioning of 28 U.S. politicians for “violating China’s sovereignty.”
“The overall message is: America is doing very badly. China is doing very well,” Nimmo said. “Who do you want to be like?”
Last month, YouTube announced that it had removed more than 3,000 YouTube channels in December that were identified as part of Graphika’s investigation into influence campaigns linked to China. Other Facebook and Twitter accounts identified in Graphika’s report were also removed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.