Welcome to the China Angle, I’m Simone Gao. In the wake of spiraling US-China relations, the Chinese communist regime has increased its efforts to influence the upcoming US elections. Its strategy involves the use of social, electronic and cognitive hacking in order to discredit the current administration and its foreign policies. On August 17, Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, told Fox News that China’s efforts to influence American public opinion pose a greater threat to national security than those of any other nation. What are the ramifications of the CCP’s cyberattacks on the US social and political climates? How might those attacks impact the 2020 U.S. election?
We begin tonight with “Spamouflage Dragon,” a pro-CCP spam network responsible for creating numerous fake social media accounts across a variety of platforms. These accounts were used to post English-language videos attacking the Trump administration and its foreign policies. Recent research compiled by Graphika details their actions.
Spamouflage’s disinformation campaign initially began in the summer of 2019. Then, their attacks were carried out in the Chinese language and centered on degrading the Hong Kong protesters. In early 2020, they turned their attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, posting videos praising the CCP’s response at the same time the regime was being accused of covering up the outbreak.
But Spamouflage is much larger than their propaganda for the Chinese people suggests. Starting in mid-July, Spamouflage revived old accounts and created new ones on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in order to directly impact American public opinion. These English-language videos attempted to portray a chaotic America and an incompetent Trump administration. They did so by focusing on the administration’s policies on China, handling of the pandemic, approach to racial inequality and recent threat to ban TikTok.
Using emotionally-charged headlines like “Who is responsible for this national disaster in the United States” and “the racial discrimination isn’t solved, the violence will not stop,” the videos pretended to have sympathy for everyday Americans exposed to the so-called chaos. Instead, they were intended to prey on American emotions in order to increase their dissatisfaction with and anger toward the Trump administration.
While these attacks were meant to be ongoing, the strategy was flawed. The videos were quickly identified due to significant language errors and awkward automated voice-overs. They were also posted on social media accounts with AI-generated profile pictures and featured Chinese headlines with English subtitles. And Spamouflage chose to bombard the platforms, offering an average of one video per day and sometimes within 36 hours of official US statements, instead of offering fewer, but higher quality, videos.
American public response to this revelation has focused on the Spamouflage network itself rather than on the real threat behind their network: the Chinese Communist Regime. Hiding in the shadows of these videos tarring the Trump administration for its pandemic response or racial injustice is a regime with an active interest in swing the upcoming US election.
As an example, one video posted on YouTube, titled “When I voted for Trump, I almost sentenced myself to death,” suggests that Trump is targeting China solely to bolster his reelection efforts. Other videos showcase flattering images of Joe Biden and outright predict that Trump will lose the election.
These videos gained relatively few views before being taken down. In some cases, the video had only one view. But while the impacts of Spamouflage’s efforts were minimal, the strategy and threat remain significant. It is only a matter of time before they try again, and this time they will have learned ways to better disguise their efforts.
The failure of this spamming attempt may also make the CCP’s need to influence American public opinion seem more urgent than ever.
Back in June, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times and the Chinese Foreign Ministry were engaged in coordinated public disinformation campaigns targeting Trump. The first campaign focused on the coronavirus pandemic while the second was an attempt to stoke racial tension amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Both were the focus of most Spamouflage videos. And both remain key talking points among those who oppose Trump.
In a clear signal of concern over international involvement in the US election, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Bill Evanina, revealed that rival nations including China, Russia and Iran are attempting to influence US policies and election. Evanina, who oversees the intelligence community’s work on election security, specifically noted that China “prefers” a Trump loss in November, because Chinese officials view him as “unpredictable.” And that calls into question the success of the Chinese regimes’ efforts to pressure political leaders into supporting their country’s interests.
To put it another way, the CCP’s intention is to bribe its way through Congress in order to shift US policies to a pro-CCP allegiance. The regime believes that any political leader can be persuaded to support the Communist party, given the right influence or promise. To proactively address this concern, ODNI director John Ratcliffe recently revealed that the intelligence community has made members of Congress aware of China’s increased efforts to influence the election.
These efforts include far more than a network of spammers. In a press briefing on August 9, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the US had identified hackers linked to the Chinese government who were trying to infiltrate local voter registration databases. These databases are responsible for the administration of elections at the state level and the collection of data on American citizens.
Days later, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI Director Chris Wray echoed the concern over the CCP’s potential involvement in the election. Wray’s briefing came as the Chinese social media app TikTok was identified as a potential tool in election interference activities. The method it may be using is called cognitive hacking, a new disinformation frontier. Cognitive hacking is a form of cyberattack that seeks to manipulate people’s perception by exploiting psychological vulnerabilities. Using misinformation targeted to their victims’ specific vulnerabilities, hackers try to change their thinking which will naturally result in a change of behavior.
Cognitive hacking may have been a primary cause of the recent closure of Houston’s Chinese consulate. According to an RFA report based on FBI findings, prior to its closure, the Chinese consulate was attempting to use a Chinese audiovisual platform - possibly TikTok - to create chaos across the US and cause Trump to lose the general election. Using Big Data, they identified certain groups of Americans who were likely to participate in a BLM or Antifa movement and pushed violent propaganda videos to those specific accounts in order to galvanize action.
We reached out to the FBI with this specific question that if they can verify the RFA-cited FBI findings that TikTok and the Chinese consulate in Houston collaborated in using big data to push propaganda to galvanize a group of people to participate in the BLM movement. The FBI replied: No comment.
So if the report is true, it offers proof of the CCP’s weaponization of Big Data and its applications to cognitive hacking. It would also corroborate Assistant Attorney General Demers’ claim that the Chinese consulate in Houston was not chosen at random given Texas’ new role as a likely swing state in the 2020 election.
TikTok is an ideal instrument for the Chinese regime to re-engineer and re-shape American political thought. Unlike Facebook, which analyzes your current friendship network, TikTok uses a behavioral profile powered by AI to populate a user’s feed before friends are even added. That profile also allows them to predict the type of friends a user should interact with. In the hands of a communist regime, such a platform could potentially destabilize a democracy by inciting hatred and rioting that may result in a collapse of institutional trust.
The CCP has repeatedly denied any plans to interfere in the US election, calling it “the US’ internal affairs.” But Chinese diplomats—and proven social, electronic and cognitive hacking attempts—tell a very different story.
This has been the China Angle, I am Simone Gao. If you like our program, please don’t forget to share and subscribe to our channel. Thanks for watching and see you next time.