A network of fake Chinese accounts has been posting videos bashing President Donald Trump, criticizing his recent closure of China’s consulate in Houston, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his threats to ban the popular social media app TikTok, according to research published Wednesday.
The network is technologically advanced – using artificial intelligence to create faked faces for profile images – and nimble, producing videos at a pace of roughly one per day since mid-July. One video responded directly to a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for an internet “clean” of malign Chinese influence less than 36 hours after he made a speech on the subject last week.
One three-minute video posted on YouTube by the network on Tuesday, titled “When I voted for trump, I almost sentenced myself to death,” portrayed the president as bashing China and threatening to ban TikTok to bolster his reelection chances after a disastrous federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. The video shows flattering images of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and predicted Trump will lose in November.
The researchers, from the network analysis firm Graphika, said it was the first direct reference to Biden from the Chinese network.
They also found persistent sloppiness in the videos overall, such as odd translations and a poor grasp of spoken English. An apparently automated voice, for example, said “us” for “U.S.” One video had words appear on-screen in English and Chinese saying the confusing phrase, “Cast A Chestnut In The Fire Will Burn Themselves With Fire.”
The videos and related content appeared on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, all of which have closed fake accounts affiliated with the network. And though its posts regularly echoed official Chinese government propaganda, Graphika was unable to determine what relationship, if any, the network had with the Chinese government. Nor is it clear whether the intended audience was Chinese, American or a combination of both.
U.S. intelligence officials said last week that Chinese officials were seeking to undermine Trump’s quest for re-election. The network highlighted by Graphika, which it dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon” because political messages came from accounts that also produced commercial forms of spam, sought to exploit racial division and unrest in the United States, often laying blame for these problems to Trump.
“This network is quick on the draw,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations for Graphika, which is based in New York. “That means they must be watching developments in the United States’ China policy closely and aiming to react in close to the same news cycle … That’s why it’s important to keep disrupting and exposing it, so that it can’t build a genuine audience.”
None of the videos found by Graphika, which detailed its findings in a report titled “Spamouflage Goes to America: Pro-Chinese Inauthentic Network Debuts English-Language Videos,” succeeded in achieving viral spread online, despite what appeared to be comments and other reactions posted by accounts from the fake network. Many of the videos had fewer than 100 views, suggesting either poor trade craft or an online campaign still in its early phases.
Graphika first discovered Spamouflage Dragon last year, when it was active in bashing Hong Kong protesters and fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who frequently is critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The network of fake accounts became active again during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic, praising China’s response at a time when it was facing accusations of a cover up.
Social media companies have repeatedly taken action against the network, based on previous research by Graphika. YouTube reported terminating more than 1,300 channels in June for their involvement in “coordinated influence operations linked to China.” Twitter and Facebook also has taken down accounts affiliated with Spamouflage Dragon.
But since June the network has turned its attention on U.S. affairs, with Trump a frequent target. The recent rash of videos has been mainly in English, with both English and Chinese subtitles. One YouTube account, featuring a profile image of a woman but the name “Malcolm Daly,” had in 2016 posted two movies online, garnering more than 150,000 views. It was quiet until mid-June but has posted 38 short videos in English since then, suggesting the account was acquired recently and reactivated after a dormant period, the researchers wrote.
The Malcolm Daly YouTube account, listed as having more than 1,100 followers, is one of three that posted a video blasting Trump for the failed U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic and the demonstrations triggered by the police killing of George Floyd. The transcript reads, somewhat confusingly, “But trump is still addicted to his reelection, don’t think how to control the epidemic and this riot.”
Another video posted by the network includes video of Floyd’s killing as the text reads, “kneeling to kill blacks continues to ferment in the United States.”
Despite the limited reach of the network’s videos, researchers were struck by their frequency and their ability to respond quickly to news events. When Trump ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston closed last month, the network responded with a series of three videos over several days questioning the U.S. rationale for the move and justifying potential Chinese countermeasures.
“These videos targeted existing and divisive political topics and real events in the U.S., commenting on racial injustice, or the Trump administration’s handling of covid-19. That being said, the accounts didn’t try to hide their Chinese affiliation,” said Camille Francois, chief innovation officer at Graphika. “The network was covert, notably because it relied on fake accounts, some of them with AI-generated fake profile pictures, but the pro-Chinese messaging was right out in the open.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the government of China does not want Trump to win re-election in November, seeing him as “unpredictable.” In a statement last week, William Evanina, the top intelligence official overseeing election security, drew a line between efforts by China, which he cast as efforts to “shape the policy environment in the United States,” with actions by Russia, which he said were designed to “denigrate.”
The Graphika analysis did not connect Spamouflage Dragon to the Chinese government. But the network has produced videos about some of the same policy issues that Evanina noted the Chinese government has debated.
For example, on Aug. 4, the network published a video that criticized Trump’s threat to banish the TikTok app from the United States, accusing him of “prohibiting the masses from expressing free speech.” The video appeared on multiple YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, Graphika found. Trump signed an executive order last week setting a timetable for banning TikTok from the United States, citing national security concerns. Its China-based parent company, ByteDance, is in talks with Microsoft and other companies to sell TikTok.
Evanina said that the Chinese government had “harshly criticized” the administration’s stance on TikTok, as well as its criticism of Chinese actions in Hong Kong, the legal status of the South China Sea and China’s efforts to expand its influence in the development of the 5G data network.
“China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests and deflect and counter criticism of China,” Evanina said. In that respect, the government and Spamouflage Dragon appear to be pursuing similar goals.