Spamouflage’s Ill Will: Anatomizing a Two-Year Pandemic Propaganda Campaign
Spamouflage Survives Part 5/6: Tracing the arc of CCP-aligned COVID-19 Disinformation since early 2020
Thanks for reading Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
This week, Miburo has published a series of reports on Spamouflage, a disinformation actor aligned with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over the past 11 months, we have observed Spamouflage’s coordinated information operations expand to new topics, such as denying human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang and attacking Taiwan’s ruling party.
Spamouflage has disseminated disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines since early 2020, when the CCP made the pandemic top priority for government propaganda and covert information operations (IO).1 While social media platforms took action against Spamouflage accounts spreading propaganda about vaccines in early 2020, they appear to have missed a substantial part of the same network producing similar content, allowing CCP propaganda to continue to spread on their platforms.
Given that many of these accounts have been actively messaging about the virus and vaccines since mid to late 2020, we can trace the arc of CCP-aligned messaging on the COVID-19 virus in Spamouflage content.
Spamouflage COVID-19 Narratives Over time:
Early 2020 - Praising frontline workers and spreading messages of encouragement wishing good luck to China and Wuhan in its efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Mid to late 2020 - Highlighting China’s success in “conquering the virus” and amplifying the chaos of the U.S. response to the virus.
Early to mid 2021 - Promoting Chinese vaccines and claiming that Western vaccines, especially American ones, cause dangerous side effects.
Mid to late 2021 - Increased promotion of COVID-19 origin conspiracies, especially those implicating the United States. Accounts are particularly eager to give oxygen to the Fort Detrick conspiracy, which claims the U.S. military developed COVID-19 as a bioweapon. This rumor has also been promoted by Chinese government officials and Chinese state-owned media outlets.
Early 2020 - Praising Frontline Workers, and Rallying Support for China and Wuhan
In early 2020, as uncertainty about the pandemic spread and China struggled with containing the virus at home, Spamouflage posts lionized China’s frontline workers and stirred up patriotism supporting the nation’s response to the pandemic. Spamouflage had no negative posts on the topic in this timeframe.
Because we have you [front line workers], change is coming soon. You all are this generation's heroes, and because of you, the winter will finally end, and the warm spring will arrive!
"Donate my body's remains to the country". These were the first seven words the note [Old Xiao] left before dying. “I don’t seek any reward, whether I live or die [doing my job]” – these were the last words [written by] medical workers before leaving [for their shift on the frontlines]. Like Old Xiao,2 they put others’ lives before their own. Patriotic feelings aren't an abstraction for common people at this moment –you ask how a commoner (people who are not in power politically) can ever contribute much to their country? These seven words are your answer.
Photo text: Giving all we’ve got | China and Wuhan
Mid-Late 2020 - Praising China’s Success and Highlighting the West’s Failures
From Spring 2020 onwards, as China’s coronavirus restrictions loosened up and the West struggled with the spread of COVID-19, Spamouflage posts alleged that China had “defeated the virus” and highlighted failures of the West’s response. These posts fit into Chinese state media’s larger messaging strategy at the time, asserting that China’s authoritarian model was superior to Western liberal democracy.
The ancients said: "To err is human; to correct a mistake is the greatest good." Yet there are some people who don't want to fix their ways, and will walk the road into darkness. [They] ignore China's efforts against the virus, and only look at their death rate, and are passive about fighting the pandemic. They waited until the pandemic wreaked havoc and then were so ashamed they got angry and doubted China's data about the virus. When the pandemic was just starting to break out, some Western countries didn't understand and didn't approve of the measures we took to fight the virus. They thought we were making a big deal out of nothing, and that the controls we put in place were excessive and had a grave impact on China's economy. But after we paid this great price and worked hard, we curbed the spread of the pandemic with a very low death rate.
Photo text: The Chinese reads “Scapegoating is a virus.” Chinese state media and the Chinese government have frequently accused Western countries of using it as a scapegoat and blaming it for the pandemic.
#AmericasPandemic the number of COVID cases is climbing in almost every U.S. State, the U.S. may have a third wave, intensive care units are overcrowded with patients. The U.S. is about to see the “biggest wave”, because without a vaccine, a sharp rise in cases will make the U.S. pandemic situation even more grim.
Photo Text: As the world's current superpower, no one imagined the U.S. would take “first place” in the pandemic.
#USA As America’s pandemic grows grimmer, “I hope these figures … can make the American people realize that we can’t let this happen (a sharp rise in the death rate), because the current pandemic situation in the U.S. will get even worse. As we move into the winter, it’s getting frightening.” People just need to do simple things like wear a mask, not get too close to people, carefully wash their hands, and not gather in groups.
Photo Text: The pandemic is wreaking havoc in America.
A post (figure 6 above) from late 2020 reads:
“In facing the pandemic, the US and China have stark differences. In China, the whole country responded as one, completely controlling the pandemic, and even still, many people continue to voluntarily wear masks. The virus continues to gradually spread in the U.S., but the government and its people persist in believing that it’s as controllable as the common cold and refuse to wear masks. #USA #China
#USA America didn’t [reach herd immunity like it claimed it would], American politicians used the coronavirus as a tool to attack other countries and advocated for ‘herd immunity’ but this scornful behavior ended up having irreversible consequences for the US.
Photo text: Trump says all’s well because we’ll reach herd immunity, but it’s all a lie.
#USA The U.S. pandemic has gotten worse lately, the daily count of confirmed cases has exceeded 100,000 for a few days in a row. There have been over 1,000 deaths for several days. Officials from from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services have warned that the pandemic situation the U.S. is facing is extremely grave, given that the flu will be going around and people are gathering together for the holidays.
Early 2021 - Promoting Chinese Vaccines and Vaccine Diplomacy
As vaccines became more widely available around the world in early 2020, Spamouflage began to praise Chinese vaccines and exaggerate the side effects of Western vaccines.
China is the biggest economy supporting , giving priority to developing countries and providing them vaccines in many ways, including donating vaccines and free support. It has already donated vaccines to countries like Syria, the Philippines, Indonesia. China is demonstrating taking on the actions of a great nation. #ChineseVaccines
Figure 10 praises China for being the biggest economy in COVAX, a joint project launched by several international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) to facilitate donation of vaccines to developing countries. Under the Trump administration, which was preparing to formally withdraw from the WHO, the U.S. was not a participating member of COVAX. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would formally join the COVAX project, making it the largest economy participating in the project.
Mid-Late 2021 - Alleging COVID-19 is a U.S. Military Bioweapon
Beginning in mid-2021, accounts began sowing the Fort Detrick conspiracy, alleging the U.S. military is behind the coronavirus.
In August and September, several accounts began more aggressively pushing the same conspiracy theory.
The content samples in this article show how the arc of Spamouflage’s COVID-19 posts. In early 2020, Spamouflage accounts often used the phrases “good luck Wuhan!” or “good luck China!” (武汉加油 / 中国加油).3 As China appeared to have successfully curbed the spread of the virus at home, the tone of Spamouflage content shifted to praising China’s successes and amplifying the West’s failures, especially as the virus spread rapidly across the U.S. After vaccines became available in 2021, China vaunted its vaccine diplomacy in the developing world and claimed that Western vaccines had defects. The most recent phase of Spamouflage’s COVID-19 content continues to allege that the virus came from the U.S., a narrative that Chinese government officials, Chinese state media, and CCP-aligned content farms have pushed since early 2020. In recent months, Spamouflage has dedicated considerable effort to amplifying the Fort Detrick conspiracy, claiming COVID-19 was a military U.S. bioweapon. Though social media platforms took action against one part of the network in early 2021, thousands of Spamouflage accounts continued to spread disinformation about the pandemic in both Chinese and English throughout the year.
In our next post, we’ll explore Spamouflage’s attacks on liberal democracy in 2021, including the U.S. Summit for Democracy and journalists whose work has displeased the CCP.
Want more? Read the rest of our Spamouflage Survives series here:
See for instance
https://apnews.com/article/pandemics-beijing-only-on-ap-epidemics-media-122b73e134b780919cc1808f3f6f16e8, https://medium.com/digintel/china-coronavirus-disinfo-targets-taiwan-2490d99ce6a9, https://www.propublica.org/article/leaked-documents-show-how-chinas-army-of-paid-internet-trolls-helped-censor-the-coronavirus, https://www.iftf.org/disinfo-in-taiwan/, https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/data-void-china-covid-disinformation/, https://www.propublica.org/article/how-china-built-a-twitter-propaganda-machine-then-let-it-loose-on-coronavirus, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/world/asia/china-coronavirus-covid-conspiracy-theory.html.
Old Xiao (老肖) is an affectionate nickname for Xiao Xianyou 肖贤友, a 47-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan who refused treatment for his serious case of COVID-19 in order to save more supplies for other sick patients in early February 2020. His story and those of frontline medical workers were featured in Chinese state media in the early pandemic, see https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_6047999 and https://daydaynews.cc/zh-hant/hotcomm/amp/326660.html.
While the phrase 加油 (literally “add oil”) means “good luck”, it also is used to encourage others. In this context, “fight on” or “keep your head up” would also be accurate translations of the phrase.