By Andrew Thornebrooke
Tech giant Meta has purged thousands of fake accounts from its platforms, which the company says were linked to China’s law enforcement agencies and formed the world’s largest online influence operation.
The new report, published by Meta on Aug. 29, says that the removed accounts were associated with a China-based operation nicknamed “Spamouflage” by the cybersecurity community.
Meta purged more than 7,700 Facebook accounts, 900 pages, 15 groups, and a smattering of Instagram accounts that were linked to the operation and engaged in spreading pro-Chinese communist and anti-U.S. propaganda, among other things.
Meta was not alone in hosting the Chinese communist disinformation, however. The report says the “covert influence operation” was active on over 50 platforms, including X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, Medium, Quora, and Vimeo.
Individuals linked to China’s law enforcement appeared to be behind the operation. They worked from a geographically diverse set of regions in China while attempting to make it appear that the activity was coming from the United States.
“The network was run by geographically dispersed operators across China who appear to have been centrally provisioned with internet access and content directions,” the report says.
“Although the people behind this activity tried to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement.”
China-Based Agents Laundered Disinformation
Meta’s report says the investigation that unearthed the campaign began in 2022 after public reporting brought to light a campaign to target a human-rights-focused nonprofit.
The influence operation Meta discovered targeted the United States and its key allies and partners, including Taiwan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Chinese diaspora communities worldwide.
Much of the disinformation it posted attempted to degrade the United States or promote the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a one-party state.
“This network typically posted positive commentary about China and its province Xinjiang and criticisms of the United States, Western foreign policies, and critics of the Chinese government, including journalists and researchers,” the report says.
“Taken together, we estimate Spamouflage to be the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation to date.”
Spamouflage also manufactured and attempted to distribute conspiracy theories apparently intended to undermine confidence in the United States and the rules-based international order. These included stories claiming that the United States started COVID-19 by shipping contaminated seafood to China, bombed the NordStream natural gas pipelines, and committed genocide.
The operation also made propaganda targeting Taiwan, urging its military leadership to surrender to China before a war broke out.
While many of the thousands of accounts used by Spamouflage were detected and disabled by automated systems, Meta says that those behind the operation adapted their tactics by laundering disinformation through multiple channels in an effort to maintain a persistent presence.
In one such instance, the China-based actors created and published a 66-page “research paper” filled with misspellings and other errors on the open repository Zenodo.
Spamouflage then created and posted two videos on YouTube and Vimeo to promote the fake research. After this, it created a new article that cited the fake research and embedded the two videos, which claim that the United States had been “hiding the truth about the origin of the COVID-19.”
Finally, it planted this new article across multiple platforms—including LiveJournal, Tumblr, and Medium—and used social media accounts on Facebook, X, Quora, Reddit, Google Groups, LiveJournal, and Tumblr to artificially amplify these links.
Despite these efforts, the Meta report says, Spamouflage consistently struggled to reach beyond its own echo chamber, which consisted primarily of bots and paid-for followers.
CCP Seeks ‘Mind Dominance’ Before War
Spamouflage is only one part of a wide-reaching network of interconnected influence operations linked to the CCP and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Such operations are part of a broader strategy conducted for the benefit of the CCP and aimed at eroding international resistance to the regime both prior to and during a war.
The Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report (pdf), which distills the Defense Department’s most authoritative assessments of China’s strategy and capabilities, highlights this development as part of a new method of psychological warfare emerging among the regime’s politico-military leadership.
The report says that the CCP and PLA are expanding and evolving their methods for conducting war on the mind in an effort to win real military advantage during a future conflict.
“As the PLA seeks to expand the reach of its influence operations around the world and to seize information dominance on the battlefield, it is researching and developing the next evolution of psychological warfare called cognitive domain operations (CDO) that leverages subliminal messaging, deep fakes, overt propaganda, and public sentiment analysis,” the report states.
The report describes CDO as “a more aggressive form of psychological warfare” intended to “affect a target’s cognition, decision making, and behavior.”
In short, CDO is the regime’s new methodology for breaking the will of an adversary or else manipulating them into behaving in a manner more in accordance with the regime’s desires.
“The goal of CDO is to achieve what the PLA refers to as ‘mind dominance,’ defined as the use of propaganda as a weapon to influence public opinion to effect change in a nation’s social system, likely to create an environment favorable to China and reduce civilian and military resistance to PLA actions,” the report states.
“PLA articles on CDO state that seizing mind dominance in the cognitive domain and subduing the enemy without fighting is the highest realm of warfare.”