Canada

Chinese-backed spam network targeted Trudeau and Poilievre: report

Ottawa says Chinese government behind an elaborate foreign interference spam campaign that also targeted dozens of MPs

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OTTAWA – The federal government says the Chinese government is behind an elaborate foreign interference spam campaign targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and dozens of MPs that used deepfake videos to falsely accuse them of criminal activity.

Beginning in early August, a network of both new and hijacked X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook accounts left thousands of comments on MPs’ accounts falsely claiming that a known critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accused them of “criminal and ethical violations,” according to a new report by Global Affairs Canada’s Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM).

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The web of accounts, commonly called a bot network, significantly ramped up its disinformation activity around the September long weekend. 

The posts appear to have included digitally modified videos (commonly called a “deepfake”) of the unnamed CCP critic to make the claims against the MPs appear more credible, according to the RRM.

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The report does not identify the “dozens” of MPs, including cabinet ministers, who were targeted by the bot network beyond Trudeau and Poilievre.

The report says the bot-network appears to be part of a “well-known spamouflage network” that has been connected to the People’s Republic of China.

The word spamouflage is a combination of “spam” and “camouflage.” Spamouflage campaigns are “hidden attempts to spread spam-like content and propaganda among more every-day, human-interest-style content,” RRM explained in its report.

“Spamouflage networks are largely contained within their own echo chambers of fake users, and rarely garner organic social media engagement from real users,” it added.

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The point of the China-linked campaign was likely twofold, according to RRM Canada.

Firstly, it aimed to both discredit and denigrate the targeted MPs, who are likely vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party, by tying them to ethical and criminal allegations “using a popular Chinese-speaking figure in Canada.”

Secondly, it meant to “silence criticism of the CCP” by pushing targeted MPs to publicly denounce and distance themselves from the unnamed CCP critic.

The report says all impacted MPs have been briefed on the spamouflage campaign.

This spamouflage network is tied to a group of 9,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages that were shut down by Meta in late August because they were associated with a Chinese political spam network that targeted users namely in Australia, the U.K., the U.S.

“We were able to uncover a large and prolific covert influence operation which was active on more than 50 platforms and forums,” Meta wrote in an August report in which it said it shut down 7,704 Facebook accounts, 954 pages, 15 groups and 15 Instagram accounts.

“This network originated in China and targeted many regions around the world, including Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan and global Chinese-speaking audiences,” Meta added.

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Meta’s investigation found that the bot network was run from what appeared to be many clusters of offices established throughout China. Website traffic data led Meta investigators to believe that the spamouflage operators ran the operation like a regular business, highlighting how structured CCP-linked foreign interference operations have become.

“Their behaviour suggested that they were operated by groups who may have worked from a shared location, such as an office. Each cluster worked to a clear shift pattern, with bursts of activity in the mid-morning and early afternoon, Beijing time, with breaks for lunch and supper, and then a final burst of activity in the evening,” Meta wrote.

RRM Canada’s report said many of its findings were based on work done by the Australian Strategic Police Institute (ASPI) think tank, who first published an investigation into the CCP’s spamouflage campaigns in April.

“Those efforts have evolved to nudge public opinion towards positions more favourable to the CCP and to interfere in the political decision-making processes of other countries. A greater focus on covert social-media accounts allows the CCP to pursue its interests while providing a plausibly deniable cover,” reads the report titled Gaming Public Opinion.

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