‘Greatest threat’: China’s subtle warfare campaign exposed

·4-min read

A pro-China network of fake and impostor accounts has found a global audience on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as the country continues its subtle information war with the West.

The bots mock the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the deadly Capitol riot, new research published overnight has found.

Messages posted by the network, which also praised China, reached the social media feeds of government officials, including some in China and Venezuela who retweeted posts from the fake accounts to millions of their followers.

The accounts – dubbed “Spamouflage – also attack the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, while others question the safety of US-approved Covid-19 vaccines.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a much more forceful approach to foreign relations, ramping up criticism of the US and Australia. Source: Getty
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a much more forceful approach to foreign relations, ramping up criticism of the US and Australia. Source: Getty

The international reach marked new territory for a pro-China social media network that has been operating for years, says 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,” Mr Nimmo said.

The network’s messaging aligns closely with posts and comments made by Chinese state officials. But it is unclear who is behind the fake accounts, which posted more than 1400 videos in English, Mandarin or Cantonese.

“The overall message is: America is doing very badly. China is doing very well,” Mr Nimmo said.

“Who do you want to be like?”

Fake accounts amplified by real users

The network used photos of Chinese celebrities on the accounts and, in one case, hijacked the verified Twitter account of a Latin American soap opera show to post messages, according to Graphika’s report.

“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,” researchers wrote.

One major fake Twitter account (seen below), along with others in the report, have since been suspended by the social media giant.

One fake Twitter account, which has since been deleted, received interaction from notable accounts. Source: Graphika
One fake Twitter account, which has since been deleted, received interaction from notable accounts. The avatar is an image from 9596.org on September 6, 2017. Source: Graphika
Tweets by He Jingrun being quoted by Chinese officials. Clockwise from the top left, the ambassador to Iran, the ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the ambassador to Panama and the embassy to France. Source: Graphika
Tweets by He Jingrun being quoted by Chinese officials. Clockwise from the top left, the ambassador to Iran, the ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the ambassador to Panama and the French embassy. Source: Graphika

A number of fake accounts seized on the January 6 insurrection in Washington, with one video describing the US as a “failed state” and another saying America was “running naked in front of the world” in the wake of the Capitol siege.

Three videos Graphika identified described the riots as a “beautiful sight to behold,” mimicking the language used in Chinese state media reports, while some content referred to the US as the “greatest threat” to world peace.

“There’s this cherry-picking of narratives and events that make the US look really bad,” Mr Nimmo said.

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.

Warnings over new Digital Cold War

Relations between Washington and Beijing worsened under former President Donald Trump, who launched an aggressive diplomatic and economic offensive against China. As Biden takes over, he will have to navigate the economic tug-of-war between the two global superpowers in the face of an increasingly aggressive Chinese leadership.

Much of the battle will centre around technology in what’s been dubbed the new Digital Cold War – and Australia inevitably finds itself caught in the middle as China ramps up its criticism of the US-Australia alliance.

In August former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned Australia faces its “most dangerous moment” in the modern era as China and the US face off.

Writing on Foreign Affairs, Mr Rudd said Australia risks being caught in the middle of an ugly fight as US and China relations rapidly decline in a “primal” tit-for-tat.

“The sabre rattling from both Beijing and Washington has become strident, uncompromising, and seemingly unending,” he warned.

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