Guerrilla style social media campaigns have been identified as part of a drive to leverage negative media portrayals of the United States to “denigrate” the country’s standing domestically and internationally.
In an August report (pdf) by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the think-tank identified a series of “unsophisticated” Twitter and Facebook campaigns that attempted to amplify racial tension and stir up criticism of the handling of the CCP virus outbreak and the Trump presidency in the United States.
ASPI noted in the report that the campaigns appeared to mimic larger, state-backed disinformation attacks used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the U.S. and groups such as Falun Gong and the Shen Yun performing arts group.
Falun Gong and Shen Yun have been the target of long-running intimidation from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the analysis, conducted between February 2020 to August 2020, some 200 to 300 Twitter accounts were found promoting a selection of media content that portrayed “divisive or negative narratives about the U.S.”
“This has included highlighting racial tensions, amplifying criticisms of the U.S.’s handling of the [COVID-19] crisis, and political and personal scandals linked to President Donald Trump,” the report stated.
“However, there’s no clear indication of a partisan lean in this campaign. President Trump appears to be criticised in his capacity as a leader of the U.S. rather than as a presidential candidate,” it continued.
The report also found several accounts were deleted, which suggests there was a much higher number of accounts being deployed for the campaign. No obvious direct link with a state-based actor could be identified.
On Twitter, many accounts also identified as female, but lacked profile photos and descriptions.
Further, the ASPI team were able to discern that many users were of Chinese origin, due to the font-style used, as well as the broken English used for the comments.
These accounts would “retweet” or share existing content, sometimes adding commentary. In some instances, the accounts would respond to posts from political leaders.
For example, on June 3, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a comment regarding a meeting with the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and United Kingdom governments. The meeting discussed Hong Kong’s national security law and Iran.
A “Sonia Mason” responded saying: “The Trump administration has gone so far as to sacrifice our lives to get back to work in order to make the Dow Jones look good …”
The June report found that over 15 months the CCP mobilised 23,750 Twitter accounts disseminating 345,608 posts, which were all created during Beijing working hours.
The posts were all aimed at influencing four major narratives: Beijing’s handling of the CCP virus pandemic; the Hong Kong protests; undermining Taiwan’s handling of the virus; and denigrating outspoken Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.
On June 16, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a speech at the Australian National University warned of an “infodemic” and cited a European Commission report that found Beijing and Moscow were the main culprits carrying out targeted disinformation campaigns which sought to “undermine democratic debate … and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.”