Emperor in the Ether: Spamouflage’s Authoritarian Attacks on Democracy and Journalists
Spamouflage Survives Report - Part 6/6
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This week, Miburo published six pieces exploring information operations from Spamouflage, a disinformation actor aligned with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Throughout 2021, Spamouflage carried out disinformation campaigns with content covering Xinjiang, Taiwan, and COVID-19.
In this sixth and final article in our series, we explore additional noteworthy content from Spamouflage, including negative messaging on the recent U.S. Summit for Democracy (commonly informally referred to as the “Democracy Summit”) and attacks on journalists who displease the CCP.
Salvos on the Summit
In the final weeks of 2021, Spamouflage actively attacked the U.S. Democracy Summit. This actor invariably puts the term Democracy Summit between quotation marks, suggesting that the summit is not legitimate or truly dedicated to democracy. Putting concepts it disagrees with in quotation marks is a frequent feature of Chinese IO—see for example China’s use of quotation marks around the titles of all Taiwanese government officials and institutions in Chinese IO data released by Twitter. Beijing also disapproved of the Biden administration inviting Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-Khim, and its Digital Minister Audrey Tang, to the summit.
The U.S. is tarnishing the word "democracy", using it as a pretense to stir up trouble in the world. Its goal is to force "American style democracy" on others and make itself the ultimate authority on democracy so that it can oppress countries with different political systems.
Photo text English expert refutes the so-called "Democracy Summit" the US is holding. The U.S. is playing a dangerous game. Its plot won't succeed.
[The photo text is a quote from Chinese state-owned media outlet The Paper.]
Recently, the U.S. State Department very quietly published the list of invited “participants” for December’s so-called “Democracy Summit” online. China and Russia aren’t among the invitees, but “Taiwan” shockingly is. The U.S. is using democracy as a guise to carry out bloc politics and pit different camps against each other. The [U.S.] cold-war mentality is coming back. America is creating a “dividing line” and trying to “redefine” the meaning of “democracy”.
Waving the flag of democracy, on November 4, the U.S. published a draft of its list of invitees [to the Democracy Summit]. Outsiders noticed that countries like China, Russia, and Hungary aren’t on the list, but China’s Taiwan territory is. The “Democracy Summit” is in fact America’s attempt to return to its status as an international leader. It’s holding this meeting to take on “the challenge of China and Russia”. Naturally, China and Russia are not on the list. The U.S. is adopting its cold war mentality all over again! #USA
Figure 3 and Figure 4 both use the same font on the photos they post, even though they come from two separate accounts.
#USA A healthy democracy doesn’t cause division and conflict. It should protect social equality and justice, and not lead to class divisions. It should maintain social stability and order, and yet [U.S. democracy] is bringing chaos and turmoil. America’s democratic system is gradually decaying, it's already left the original intentions and core of its design far behind.
#USA The U.S. claims it is a supporter of democracy and human rights, but it’s covering up its dark past and the lies of its current reality. The U.S. doesn’t have the right to moralize and judge whether other countries are democratic. Certain countries are deliberately being blocked out of the so-called “Democracy Summit” according to U.S. values. This will only cause more division, and U.S.-style democracy will have disastrous consequences.
Photo text: “Mr. Democracy”is holding a “Democracy Summit” with its pack of bandit friends.
The U.S. is inviting suspected criminals to participate in the “Democracy Summit, it’s blasphemy against democracy! In recent days, Nathan Law, the anti-China rioter who fled to avoid punishment for his crimes, said he accepted America’s “invitation” to participate in the “Democracy Summit”. This again just shows how the so-called democracy summit has in fact nothing to do with democracy. The U.S. government provided a platform for this “Hong Kong independence” extremist, further revealing that the essence of the so-called “Democracy Summit” is to weaponize democracy.
Even if the U.S. didn’t invite China to partake in its long planned “Democracy Summit”, that doesn’t prevent China from expressing its views on the matter while it watches. On the topic of the U.S. “Democracy Summit”, Head of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, stated that America’s real goal isn’t democracy, but hegemony. If you want to talk about problems with democracy, America has a bunch at home. They’re just using democracy as a pretense to look good. The U.S. and other Western countries have no right to talk about democracy, it’s a complete abomination of the concept of democracy.
Everyone knows what Biden’s thinking. Using the word “Democracy” in bad faith and holding the “Democracy Summit” to coerce allies and sound the rallying call to devise a “plan against the enemy” together. It's like drug lords fighting over territory. The problem is you can’t make progress on human rights issues just by holding an online meeting and flattering each other. Do you buy it? I don’t!
Always considering itself [a shining example of] human rights, America is holding a global “Democracy Summit”. But the real kicker is on 11/22, a report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance listed the U.S. as a country whose democracy is “backsliding”. How many people would believe in a “Democracy Summit” held by such a country?
Spamouflage’s devotion to parroting the arguments of the Chinese government and Chinese state media has also been clear in the past 10 days, following several governments’ announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Countries are refraining from sending official government representatives to the Olympics in protest of China’s continued human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, another topic on which Spamouflage has spread disinformation in 2021.
Spamouflage messaging has also focused on the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Journalists in the Crosshairs
Another novel feature is Spamouflage’s 2021 operations is the targeting of journalists who have angered the CCP with their reporting. One of these was Melissa Chan. Chan is a Chinese-American journalist who was forced to leave China in 2012 after the government refused to renew her press credentials, the first in a series of moves that have limited foreign reporting in China in the past decade.
#USA The U.S., which is in the middle of the pandemic with a sharp rise in cases, is (home to) anti-Asian sentiment and violent crimes against Asian heritage individuals. An 84-year-old was maliciously knocked over, in one day six Asian Americans were attacked ... but (even) in this context, some American media personalities are making a strange argument. They claim that, while we should condemn anti-Asian prejudice, we must also be vigilant that China is using these incidents to "conduct political propaganda". Before this argument began circulating, there was a shooting incident in the state of Georgia. Eight people died, six of whom were Asian women. “Asian Lives Matter” began trending on Twitter. Survival for Asian Americans in this environment is bringing up heated debate in the United States. Anti-Asian prejudice is a long-standing problem in the U.S. Asians have been discriminated against, treated with prejudice, and bullied in American society. After the pandemic broke out, U.S. politicians recklessly scapegoated [Asians], stirring up xenophobic sentiment and exacerbating the plight of Asian Americans.
Photo text: “Female reporter Melissa Chan, herself an Asian American, claims ‘While we should condemn anti-Asian attacks, we should also be vigilant that China is using these attacks to conduct ‘political propaganda’. This is a total fabrication.”
Yvonne Tong was another journalist targeted by Spamouflage. Tong became the focus of international reporting in April 2020 after asking World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward whether the WHO would consider Taiwan’s membership in the organization, given its early successes in combating the virus. Aylward claimed not to hear Tong’s question, sidestepped it when she asked again, and then hung up after she repeated the question a third time. Shortly after the incident, Tong resigned from RTHKafter considerable harassment over the incident.
While she was interviewing the assistant director-general of the WHO, Bruce Aylward, Yvonne Tong, the host of RTHK ‘s English program “The Pulse”, pressed him for an answer on whether the WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s membership in the organization. Seizing the opportunity to advocate for “Taiwanese Independence” . This video drew heated debate online. Citizens are criticizing Tong for intentionally using her program to promote propaganda for “Taiwanese independence” and giving it an international platform. “Taiwanese independence”. They question how she can use government money to harm the government.
Photo text: “Using the pandemic to incite Taiwan independence, citizens call on RTHK to fire Yvonne Tong”
Other Noteworthy Content
Spamouflage’s previous campaigns attacking Chinese dissident-in-exile Guo Wengui have been explored in great detail in Graphika’s reports. There has been little thematic variation in clusters focused on Guo.
Surprisingly, Spamouflage is happy to opportunistically promote work from the same researchers who first exposed it when their message aligns with its goals—namely, painting Guo Wengui in a negative light. A Spamouflage Facebook page called “Blince ored” shared a link to Graphika’s May 2021 report, “Ants in a Web,”which exposed coordinated inauthentic behavior promoting Guo Wengui on several international social media platforms.
Closing the Curtain
Despite being a well-known advanced persistent manipulator, Spamouflage has successfully reappeared on the world’s most popular social media platforms time and time again. In 2021, it even expanded its tactics, running political ads on Facebook that promoted CCP control over Hong Kong.
Spamouflage’s 2021 operations showed several noteworthy innovations in both content and behavior.
This CCP-aligned actor is expanding its messaging, in particular with two new issues: denial of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang and a new focus on U.S.-Taiwan relations. This realignment of messaging priorities aligns with the CCP and CSM’s own.
Spamouflage, though a well-known actor with long-established behaviors, continues to proliferate on Facebook and YouTube. Accounts are typically actioned much more quickly on Twitter. Their continued proliferation on these platforms enables them to expand their audience and amplify Chinese government messaging.
Spamouflage continues to innovate - revelation of past tactics doesn’t dissuade the entity from continuing to use them. In addition to the use of Bangladeshi accounts, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Arabic-language accounts appear to be amplifying Spamouflage content in certain clusters. Turkish accounts almost always served as amplifiers of original content posted by other accounts, and also frequently used AI-generated profile photos.
Political ads have given Spamouflage a larger reach than before - for the first time, Spamouflage ran political ads on Facebook that have a substantial reach (a potential audience of millions, and tens of thousands of interactions).
This six-part series has explored Spamouflage’s disinformation campaigns throughout 2021. It has consistently amplified the arguments of the Chinese government—actively denying genocide in Xinjiang, sowing false information about the origins of the COVID-19 virus, criticizing U.S. support of Taiwan, attempting to denigrate Taiwan’s ruling party, and opposing the U.S. Democracy Summit and diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Want more? Read the rest of our Spamouflage Survives series here:
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We’ll use the term Democracy Summit to refer to this event for the remainder of this article.
The phrase “Mr. Democracy” is literally “the sick man of democracy”. “Sick man” is a phrase that is used to mock others in Chinese. It also reminds the reader of the phrase “sick man of Asia” 亚洲病夫, a term used to describe China in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in early 2020 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-is-the-real-sick-man-of-asia-11580773677). Chinese state media took great offense at the use of this term.