China is behind the largest known covert propaganda operation ever identified on Facebook and Instagram, according to a new report by security researchers at Meta.
Meta on Tuesday outed the authors of a four-year long influence campaign dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon,” which first appeared in 2019 to spread propaganda about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Since then, the campaign has focused on spreading disinformation about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, attacking dissidents and critics abroad, criticizing the United States, and attempting to sow division during the 2022 midterm elections.
For years, researchers have speculated that the voluminous Spamouflage Dragon posts were connected to the Chinese government but have been unable to publicly prove a link until now. The link comes courtesy of overlapping content found in both Meta’s report and charges filed against Chinese intelligence operatives back in spring.
Federal prosecutors accused dozens of Chinese Ministry of Public Security officials of being behind a covert social media propaganda campaign in a criminal complaint filed in April. Some of the same propaganda content cited by U.S. prosecutors in that complaint also appears in Meta’s report published on Tuesday, indicating that the Ministry of Public Security is the “law enforcement agency” Meta believes is behind Spamouflage Dragon.
“We can confirm that the social media activity described in the complaint is part of the Spamouflage operation we described in our report,” a Meta spokesperson tells Rolling Stone.
In April, the Justice Department indicted 34 Chinese intelligence officers with the MPS on charges of conspiracy to transmit interstate threats and conspiracy to commit interstate harassment in connection with an attempt to intimidate Chinese exiles in the US.
The operatives were part of the MPS’s “912 Special Project Working Group,” according to the indictment. Chinese officials have charged the group with “creat[ing] and us[ing] a host of accounts under false names on U.S. social media platforms to disseminate and amplify messages as part of a broad effort to influence and shape public perceptions of the PRC government, the CCP and its leaders in the United States and around the world.”
Spamouflage Dragon operators haven’t meddled as aggressively in U.S. elections as other actors, like Russia’s Internet Research Agency. But the troll network has begun to push narratives tied to the 2022 midterms.
Shortly before that election, cybersecurity researchers at Google and Mandiant found Spamouflage Dragon accounts that criticized American elections and democracy in general and urged readers not to vote. In one video posted by the trolls, narrators urged viewers “not to vote for someone” and showed footage of January 6 rioters while claiming that “The solution is to root out this ineffective and incapacitated system.”
As part of that campaign, Meta researchers recently discovered a portion of Spamouflage Dragon activity that “was run by geographically dispersed operators across China who
appear to have been centrally provisioned with internet access and content directions,” according to the report released Tuesday.
“Once you put everything together from 2019 until now, it is the largest known covert influence operation,” Meta’s global threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo says in an interview.
Spamouflage Dragon’s overwhelming scale, however, has failed to translate into any tangible influence or audience, likely because the network is focused on “putting volume over audience building,” according to Nimmo.
The trolls have demonstrated a weak command of idiomatic English with articles that, while prolific, often misspell key names or use English and Mandarin interchangeably. Other posts — like a critique of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 trip to Taiwan — appear long after the events they purported to preview.
At other times, the spammers attempted to push niche and esoteric Chinese propaganda talking points onto unreceptive audiences by piggybacking on clickable search engine optimized headlines. In one case cited by Meta researchers, Spamouflage Dragon trolls filled the replies of social media forum questions like “How do I lose belly fat through weight lifting?” with propaganda articles about “Chinese Police Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation.”
The campaign’s lack of any audience development despite years of operation, dozens of personnel behind it, and thousands of pieces of content leads some to wonder why China even bothers with the trolling effort.
“It always comes back down to this question,” Nimmo says, “of who’s kidding whom here? To what extent are [Spamouflage Dragon] targeting foreign audiences and to what extent are they targeting the people who might be paying them – to make them think that they’re reaching foreign audiences?”