The Chinese government has come under scrutiny for operating the largest known online disinformation campaign worldwide, with CNN’s investigation revealing how it is being used to harass and intimidate US residents, politicians, and businesses. The campaign employs vile and deeply personal attacks, often threatening violence towards its targets. This aggressive campaign is part of a larger effort by the Chinese government to shape the global information environment and silence critics of Beijing. As President Biden is set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, concerns are rising about the impact of this disinformation operation.
Victims of this disinformation campaign face tens of thousands of social media posts that label them as traitors, dogs, or hurl racist and homophobic slurs at them. The objective is to instill fear and paranoia among these individuals. While some victims have sought help from law enforcement agencies like the FBI, they have seen limited action taken. Tech and social media companies have shut down numerous accounts associated with the campaign, but their efforts are outpaced by the creation of new accounts each day.
Known as “Spamouflage” or “Dragonbridge,” this network includes hundreds of thousands of accounts spread across major social media platforms. These accounts not only target Americans critical of the Chinese Communist Party but also aim to discredit US politicians, undermine American companies opposed to China’s interests, and hijack online conversations globally that might portray the CCP negatively. Private researchers have been monitoring this network for years, but federal prosecutors and social media giant Meta have recently acknowledged its ties to Chinese police.
The tactics employed by the Chinese government are evolving. Initially, the focus was domestic issues, but the network has shifted to stirring controversy around global topics, even those concerning the United States. For instance, the campaign used accounts posing as Texas residents to call for protests against proposed rare-earths processing facilities in Texas and spread negative narratives about a US manufacturing company. Experts suggest that China will use these tactics to shape online discussions towards narratives that align with their objectives.
While social media companies and the US government take action against this disinformation campaign, prosecuting the perpetrators proves challenging due to the difficulty in identifying and bringing them to justice. However, these actions have consequences, especially in terms of public opinion and US-China relations. Contributions by Meta, Google, and other companies in publicly exposing Spamouflage emphasize that most accounts associated with the network receive minimal engagement, and their posts do not go viral. Nonetheless, researchers argue that the flooding strategy deployed by the network, where it bombards conversations with an overwhelming number of comments, effectively drowns out genuine users’ voices.
The disinformation campaign orchestrated by China, known as Spamouflage, presents a unique challenge as it infiltrates various social media platforms. It employs tactics like flooding conversations, using cartoons, and creating confusion by mimicking genuine accounts. Amidst the relentless harassment faced by targeted individuals, the international community remains vigilant and pushes for accountability. While prosecuting individuals involved may not be easy, the Chinese government cannot escape the consequences of its global disinformation operation.