Meta Exposes China’s Elaborate Covert Propaganda Operation on Social Media

“Spamouflage Dragon” Campaign Unveiled: A Four-Year Influence Campaign Spreading Disinformation

In a groundbreaking revelation, security researchers at Meta have uncovered what is being described as the most extensive covert propaganda campaign ever identified on social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. The campaign, dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon,” has been attributed to China, shedding light on the nation’s strategic efforts to disseminate disinformation across the digital landscape.

Meta’s recent report, released on Tuesday, exposes the multifaceted nature of the “Spamouflage Dragon” campaign. Initiated in 2019, it initially focused on promoting propaganda related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. However, over the past four years, its objectives evolved to encompass sowing discord, spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins, attacking critics and dissidents abroad, undermining the United States, and attempting to fuel division during the 2022 midterm elections.

Despite prior speculation connecting Spamouflage Dragon to the Chinese government, tangible evidence remained elusive until now. The link was established through overlapping content found in both Meta’s report and charges previously filed against Chinese intelligence operatives.

In April, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted numerous officials from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS), accusing them of orchestrating a covert social media propaganda campaign. Strikingly, the same propaganda content cited in the DOJ’s complaint also features prominently in Meta’s report, firmly implicating the MPS as the orchestrator of Spamouflage Dragon.

A spokesperson from Meta confirmed, “We can confirm that the social media activity described in the complaint is part of the Spamouflage operation we described in our report.”

Although Spamouflage Dragon has not interfered in U.S. elections as aggressively as other entities like Russia’s Internet Research Agency, it has started to propagate narratives related to the 2022 midterms. Leading up to the election, cybersecurity experts from Google and Mandiant identified Spamouflage Dragon accounts denouncing American elections and urging citizens not to vote.

Meta’s report delves into the operational aspects of Spamouflage Dragon, revealing a geographically dispersed network of operators across China who received centralized content directions and internet access for their activities.

Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, underscored the scale of the campaign, stating, “Once you put everything together from 2019 until now, it is the largest known covert influence operation.”

Despite its vast reach, Spamouflage Dragon’s impact has been limited due to its emphasis on quantity over building a discernible audience. According to Nimmo, the campaign demonstrates a weak grasp of idiomatic English, often misspelling names and occasionally blending English and Mandarin. The campaign’s attempts to push niche Chinese propaganda onto unreceptive audiences by capitalizing on search engine-optimized headlines have also largely fallen short.

The exposure of Spamouflage Dragon serves as a stark reminder of the increasingly sophisticated tactics nations employ to manipulate public perception through digital platforms. Meta’s findings underline the need for continued vigilance and cooperation to counteract such disinformation campaigns and safeguard the integrity of online discourse.

As the world grapples with the evolving landscape of cyber threats and information warfare, the revelations surrounding Spamouflage Dragon serve as a call to action for governments, tech companies, and the global community to collaborate in addressing the challenges posed by covert online propaganda operations.

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