CCP Uses AI Images of Biden, Trump in Influence Campaign Ahead of November Elections: Report

‘The bulk of the content appears aimed at creating a sense of dismay over the state of America without any clear partisan bent,’ the report says.
CCP Uses AI Images of Biden, Trump in Influence Campaign Ahead of November Elections: Report
(Left) President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up as he leaves St. Edmond Roman Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Nov. 4, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images); (Right) Former President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally at Trendsetter Engineering Inc. in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 2, 2023. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Frank Fang
2/16/2024
Updated:
2/16/2024
0:00

A Chinese Communist Party (CCP) operation nicknamed “Spamouflage” is using artificial intelligence (AI) and social media to sow discontent and amplify division in the United States ahead of November’s presidential election, according to a report.

Spamouflage is aiming to fuel disenchantment among voters while trying to persuade international audiences that the United States is mired in chaos, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit organization, which published the report on Feb. 15.

“The bulk of the content appears aimed at creating a sense of dismay over the state of America without any clear partisan bent,” the report says. “It focuses on issues like urban decay, the fentanyl crisis, dirty drinking water, police brutality, gun violence and crumbling infrastructure.”

Spamouflage created artificially generated images to drive these narratives, some of which were also edited with traditional photo-editing tools like Photoshop. The report includes many screenshots of these images from X, formerly Twitter.

For example, one X post from December 2023 shows the image of a homeless man holding a sign that reads “PLEASE HELP GOD BLESS” with the Capitol Building in the background. Above him are the words, “I have no home, so I’ve been always on the road.”
With the November elections less than nine months away, there are concerns that foreign actors, particularly the CCP, will try to influence the election outcomes. Earlier this month, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on the CCP, said the United States “would be naive” to assume the CCP won’t try to interfere in the elections.
In December last year, a declassified assessment published by the director of national intelligence (DNI) found that China attempted to meddle in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections to undermine certain candidates who espoused tough-on-China policy stances.

Images

Some images show an election-specific narrative, smearing the presidential election as “divisive and damaging for America” while featuring images of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
For example, one X post dated Oct. 19, 2023, has the words “American partisan divisions” accompanied by a poster-like image showing President Biden and President Trump each holding what appears to be a spear while facing off against each other. Above the image are the words “INFIGHTING INTENSIFIES” and “AMERICA GOES BACK 150 YEARS.”
Another image features the headshots of the two men above the image of the White House, with the words “THE COLLAPSE OF ‘AMERICAN DEMOCRACY’” and “ENDLESS PARTY STRUGGLE AND TEAR.”
Another X post has the text “The fight between the two parties, the chaos of America,” accompanied by another poster-like image showing President Biden and President Trump staring down at each other while gripping the Statue of Liberty.

Another narrative related to the election focused on portraying President Biden in a negative light, the report says. Meanwhile, narratives relating to President Trump had been “somewhat ambiguous.”

“It is unclear whether this reflects a strategic goal of CCP-aligned networks or is simply because Biden is the current President,” the report says.

Images targeting President Biden made references to Hunter Biden’s legal troubles and drug use. One X post from November last year shows an image of Biden and his son with the words “BRIBERY,” DRUG USE,” “TAX EVASION,” and “MONEY LAUNDERING.”
There were also images depicting President Biden and President Trump as being too old to be the commander-in-chief, according to the report. A relatively small number of images cast doubt on the integrity and fairness of the upcoming election.

The report said Spamouflage’s efforts had limited success in generating engagement.

“Most tweets receive either no engagement and very low numbers of views, or are only engaged with by other accounts which appear to be a part of the Spamouflage network,” the report says. “Nonetheless, these narratives provide a useful window into the approach which CCP propaganda operations are taking at this early stage in the US electoral cycle.”

Spamouflage

In April last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged 40 officers of the Chinese regime’s Ministry of Public Security over allegations of targeting U.S. residents and spreading propaganda.

Citing the DOJ’s indictment, the report suggests that the 40 officers appeared “extremely likely” to be involved in Spamouflage’s influence campaign.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, removed thousands of fake accounts associated with Spamouflage from its platforms in August last year.

Spamouflage has been active for years and has also targeted other countries.

In February 2023, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed that the CCP had coordinated dozens of Twitter accounts using the Spamouflage network to spread disinformation about Australian politics or amplify political scandals.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and dozens of Canadian members of parliament (MPs) were also targeted by a Spamouflage campaign beginning in August last year. The Canadian government said one objective of the campaign was to get MPs to distance themselves from critics of the CCP. 
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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