A network of fake Chinese social media accounts have spent months conducting a campaign slamming the U.S. and trying to undermine President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.
Unfortunately for Beijing, it has been a complete failure.
A report by social media monitoring company Graphika, published on Wednesday, highlighted the network’s efforts, which included posting English-language videos on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
The campaign appeared technologically advanced, using AI-generated avatars for the fake accounts, and responded quickly to recent U.S. actions, such as the threat to ban TikTok. But it failed to achieve its desired results.
“There's no sign that this campaign caught on with authentic audiences,” Ben Nimmo, one of the authors of the report, told VICE News. “The engagement we saw came from other accounts in the network.”
The campaign against Trump was centered on a series of videos that featured “a collage of news images with a script focusing on the tensions and conflicts within America,” all narrated by automated voiceover.
One early example criticized Trump’s handling of the coronavirus response and the George Floyd protests, with the voiceover saying “Trump is still addicted to his reelection, don’t think how to control the epidemic and this riot.”
But the videos were “clumsily made, marked by language errors and awkward automated voiceovers,” Graphika said. They also featured basic errors, including:
- The automated text-to-voice system made obvious errors, like pronouncing the initials “U.S.” as “us.”
- The videos used Chinese sayings that, when translated to English, made no sense, such as: “Cast a chestnut in the fire will burn themselves with fire.”
- Basic grammatical errors were frequent, including one video that said the U.S. government “never has a lower bound” and seems to be “very good at be mischievous.”
- In one video claiming to show police attacking BLM protesters, the producers used footage of British police officers.
Graphika hasn’t been able to identify exactly who’s behind the network, which it calls “Spamouflage Dragon” but said that its most recent campaign did not “appear to seriously attempt to conceal its Chinese origin as it pivoted toward messaging related to U.S. politics.”
The report comes just a week after U.S. intelligence sources said the Chinese government was ramping up its efforts to undermine Trump’s reelection campaign.
Spamouflage Dragon first appeared in 2019, running a campaign designed to discredit the Hong Kong protests and Guo Wengui, a frequent critic of the Chinese Communist Party. The campaign was conducted in Chinese and targeted a local audience, but it went dormant after it was uncovered by the researchers at Graphika.
The Dragon re-emerged earlier this year with a campaign to counter criticism of China's handling of the coronavirus response, again using Chinese language videos and social media posts to target local audiences.
But this most recent campaign is the first time the Chinese group has focused its attention on the U.S.
When the campaign began in June, it initially focused on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But the group moved on quickly, responding to a series of events in recent months as tensions between Washington and Beijing ramped up.
The videos were typically uploaded to YouTube first, and then amplified using accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
All three companies have removed videos and banned accounts based on the research from Graphika.
But the videos were not just attacking Trump. “Some of the videos focused on individual celebrities and organizations within U.S. society, weaving them into a polarized narrative of racial conflict,” the report said.
One, for example, argued that “the United States is divided into the rich class dominated by whites and the bottom class dominated by blacks” and went on to accuse former President Barack Obama of failing to address the racial divide or “touch the red line of white interests.”
On at least one occasion, the campaign directly referenced the upcoming election. Last week dozens of YouTube channels linked to Spamouflage Dragon launched a video entitled, “When I voted for Trump, I almost sentenced myself to death.”
The video focused on the on opinion polls showing Trump trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden, with the voiceover saying: “The Trump administration has had the worst of it just before the election.”
But according to Graphika, almost all of those videos went unviewed.
Cover: President Donald Trump listens during a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)