On February 4, 2021, Graphika, an independent U.S. market research firm issued a report called “Spamouflage Breakout,” detailing the activities of a sprawling pro-Chinese propaganda network that Graphika has dubbed “Spamouflage.” The network uses “fake accounts and reaches real social media users, including some recipients with heavyweight influence. It sends hundreds of videos that praise China, criticize the United States, and attack the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.”
Graphika took note that elements of the network were already active in the second half of 2018, when it primarily attacked Chinese émigré billionaire Guo Wengui (郭文贵, also known as Miles Kwok). In 2019, the main target became the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. After the global outbreak of the corona virus pandemic in 2020, the activities changed focus to praise China. The report alleged that as early as February last year, social media accounts acclaimed China’s rapid response to the fight against the epidemic. Starting in June, the cyber army began to criticize the United States for failing to control the virus.
The network used videos mostly pieced together from news clips, which were full of prejudice and contained false information. The report cited an example of a fake information video titled “Vaccines will not get America out of this mess.” Without providing any evidence, it argued that “the safety of the [U.S. developed Pfizer-BioNTech] vaccine was in doubt, but it was quickly approved.” On January 21, it followed up with another video that claimed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been approved in haste despite serious risks.
It has been found that the network has successfully engaged real users. “Nevertheless, in the past three months Spamouflage has been amplified by, among others, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, a Pakistani politician, a senior figure at Huawei Europe, a UK commentator and former member of parliament, George Galloway, and four YouTube channels for Chinese viewers with tens of thousands of followers. This is the first time that we have observed Spamouflage content reaching external audiences in this way.”
The report highlighted a few fake social media accounts that Spamouflage has used. One of them called @jingrunhe, screen name “贺景润 He Jingrun,” uses a young woman as its profile picture. This account was created on July 7, 2009, but its first recorded tweet was only posted on January 7, 2020, soon after the United States killed Iranian General Qasem. Then the account repeatedly spread videos and posts that showed a strong alignment with the Chinese government messaging on issues including Hong Kong, Taiwan, relations with the United States, U.S. sanctions, and China’s increasingly troubled relationship with Australia – including an accusation of war crimes against Australian troops. Many Chinese diplomatic accounts interacted with this account. As early as February 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Spokesman Lijian Zhao, one of the best known of China’s “wolf warriors,” retweeted her; he was to do so five times in the next three months. “According to a scan with Meltwater, China’s ambassador to Iran retweeted her 25 times and tweeted her a quote eight times; China’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic retweeted her 15 times and quoted her nine times; the Chinese Embassy in France retweeted her 18 times and quoted her tweet nine times; and the ambassador to Panama retweeted her nine times and quote-tweeted her 15 times.” In addition, He Jingrun was also retweeted by the Twitter account of Huawei Europe, with over five million followers and shared by Huawei Europe senior executive Mike Bai, with over 800,000 followers. Amplified by real people, this account was also retweeted by Chilean politician Hugo Gutierrez (126,000 followers, four retweets), Panamanian TV personality Annette Quinn (109,000 followers, two retweets) and philosopher Fernando Buen Abad (108,000 followers, 13 retweets). It was also retweeted 37 times by Pakistani politician Khurram Nawaz Gandapur (91,000 followers).”
Source: Graphika, “Spamouflage Breakout,” February 4, 2021
Radio Free Asia, February 5, 2021