Beijing Spreads Social Media Disinformation About Australian Politics: Think Tank

Beijing Spreads Social Media Disinformation About Australian Politics: Think Tank
A Chinese flag flies at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China on May 12 in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using social media to spread disinformation about Australian politics in a bid to undermine trust in Australia’s democratic institutions, researchers said.

Beijing has coordinated dozens of Twitter accounts in recent months to amplify allegations of sexual assault and misconduct in Parliament House using the propaganda network Spamouflage, according to experts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a defence and strategic policy think tank founded by the Australian government.

ASPI researchers said the Spamouflage network, which operates from within China, was spreading disinformation about Australian politics or amplifying political scandals in a coordinated foreign intervention by the CCP.

Some tweets these accounts posted referred to rape allegations against former attorney general Christian Porter, which the latter strongly denied.

The ASPI researchers analyzed about 30 active accounts on the Spamouflage network, most of which appeared to be female. In almost all cases, the posts used the hashtags #auspol and #QandA, which are commonly used to discuss politics on Twitter, to get the posts found in common searches. The accounts are posted in English and Mandarin.

One post read: “Many members of Congress and government employees have sex in the Capitol, and the prayer room on the top floor is where they use it for fun #QandA #auspol.”

(Twitter screenshot)
(Twitter screenshot)

Another post in Mandarin read, “former prime minister Scott Morrison had apologised, admitting that Parliament was full of bullying, abuse, and harassment.”

(Twitter screenshot)
(Twitter screenshot)
In 2019, Facebook attributed the Spamouflage network to state actors linked to the CCP and removed content from protests in Hong Kong aimed at amplifying division.

Graphika, a social media company based in New York, has also linked Spamouflage to attacks on CCP opponents and critics of the communist regime’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albert Zhang, an ASPI disinformation analyst, said the Spamouflage network has targeted many countries and is part of the CCP’s foreign interference campaign.

“What we’ve identified is a politically motivated campaign targeting the Australian political system by amplifying content about sexual assault and misconduct allegations in Parliament House and spreading disinformation about those cases in order to undermine trust in Australian politicians, politics and, ultimately, Australian democracy,” Zhang told The Guardian.
“They are doing this by amplifying other people’s negative posts but also, at times, creating their own posts to spread disinformation.”

Same Operatives Targeting Asian Females in Western Democracies

Both Zhang and Jake Wallis, the head of Program, Information Operations, and Disinformation at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, believe the network began targeting Australia’s political system in late 2022.
The logo for Twitter appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, on Nov. 29, 2021. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)
The logo for Twitter appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, on Nov. 29, 2021. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)
The operative also previously targeted prominent Asian women living in Western countries, including Vicky Xu, an ASPI researcher who co-authored a major report in 2020 on human rights abuses in Xinjiang that infuriated the CCP.
“Between 14 and 24 October, at least 199 [Twitter] accounts posted around 582 tweets mentioning her Chinese name, calling her a traitor and making physical threats,” reads an ASPI report in November 2022.

Wallis urged the Australian government to intervene.

“We’ve long discussed China’s preference for political warfare, and we can look to examples in Europe and how Russia has integrated foreign interference, disinformation, and subversion as part of its broader war against Ukraine,’’ he told The Australian.

“Democracies, since the end of the Cold War, are not used to contesting the information domain—we’re not comfortable with it.

“But authoritarian countries are very comfortable with it, both at home and abroad, and that’s something we’ve got to understand and be more prepared to ­respond to.”

Wallis said Australia needs to consider adopting a more ­robust policy response.

“Currently, it is being left to private companies, but we need to think about whether there is a much stronger role for the government because the interests of private companies are not the same as the interests of the Australian people,” he said.