Bloomberg: Margi Murphy
Spamouflage is just one of the disinformation campaigns coming out of China, researchers say. Last month, Meta removed thousands of Facebook accounts impersonating Americans and posting about abortion and health care.
China’s online targeting of dissidents have increased along with stalking and physical threats, according to the FBI’s Rozhavsky. Among those is exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, who one Spamouflage YouTube video described as a “Big Hemorrhoid,” according to Graphika. His lawyers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this year, US authorities described the inner workings of a Chinese troll farm while charging 34 officers of China’s national police with harassing US residents. Prosecutors alleged that a unit of China’s Ministry of Public Safety operated the troll farm to attack dissidents and spread propaganda to sow divisions in the US.
US authorities didn’t identify the group as Spamouflage by name and wouldn’t comment as the case is ongoing. But in a call with journalists earlier this year, Meta said the troll farm was Spamouflage.
Spamouflage’s efforts aren’t confined to the US either. The Canadian government revealed this fall that Spamouflage was suspected of targeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other members of the cabinet in a disinformation campaign that included claims a critic of the Chinese Communist Party in Canada had accused members of Parliament of criminal and ethical violations.
Ben Nimmo, global threat intelligence lead at Meta, said he first came across the group in 2019. He was poring through millions of tweets sharing subtitled videos in Chinese that criticized Guo, the exiled businessman, and Hong Kong democracy protests.
Even then, some of the group’s tactics struck him as odd. The names on some accounts – such as Bathsheba Lyons and Gonzales Swindlehurst – didn’t sound like typical pro-China supporters. The fake accounts interacted with each other to make it appear a genuine conversation was occurring and switched between mundane subjects and controversial political topics, he said.
The behavior spawned the name Spamouflage Dragon because the accounts used spam to camouflage political messaging, Nimmo said.
Researchers at Meta and Google have linked the accounts to China by monitoring their online interactions and content and by noting that many of the posts are made during working hours there. People behind the accounts also sometimes forgot to delete information about their location and unit in YouTube videos, according to researchers.
Some of Spamouflage’s posts are more comical than convincing.
Shane Huntley, head of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, recalled one YouTube video that claimed the inferiority of Western food signified the moral bankruptcy of the West. The video added, “Whereas perfect Chinese food with its cohesion of flavors shows the superiority of Chinese culture,” Huntley said. Spamouflage tried to attract attention on social network Gab by condemning the Capitol Riots. But the posts didn’t gain much traction as Gab is home to far right influencers, said C. Shawn Eib, head of investigations at Alethea, which detects misinformation and social media manipulation.
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