The onslaught of attacks – often of a vile and deeply personal nature – is part of a well-organized, increasingly brazen Chinese government intimidation campaign targeting people in the United States, documents show.
The US State Department says the tactics are part of a broader multi-billion-dollar effort to shape the world’s information environment and silence critics of Beijing that has expanded under President Xi Jinping. On Wednesday, President Biden is due to meet Xi at a summit in San Francisco.
Victims face a barrage of tens of thousands of social media posts that call them traitors, dogs, and racist and homophobic slurs. They say it’s all part of an effort to drive them into a state of constant fear and paranoia.
Often, these victims don’t know where to turn. Some have spoken to law enforcement, including the FBI – but little has been done. While tech and social media companies have shut down thousands of accounts targeting these victims, they’re outpaced by a slew of new accounts emerging virtually every day.
Known as “Spamouflage” or “Dragonbridge,” the network’s hundreds of thousands of accounts spread across every major social media platform have not only harassed Americans who have criticized the Chinese Communist Party, but have also sought to discredit US politicians, disparage American companies at odds with China’s interests and hijack online conversations around the globe that could portray the CCP in a negative light.
Private researchers have tracked the network since its discovery more than four years ago, but only in recent months have federal prosecutors and Facebook’s parent company Meta publicly concluded that the operation has ties to Chinese police.
Meta announced in August it had taken down a cluster of nearly 8,000 accounts attributed to this group in the second quarter of 2023 alone. Google, which owns YouTube, told CNN it had shut down more than 100,000 associated accounts in recent years, while X, formerly known as Twitter, has blocked hundreds of thousands of China “state-backed” or “state-linked” accounts, according to company blogs.
Still, given the relatively low cost of such operations, experts who monitor disinformation warn the Chinese government will continue to use these tactics to try to bend online discussions closer to the CCP’s preferred narrative, which frequently entails trying to undermine the US and democratic values.