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Exclusive: Bumbling social media scheme hit Hong Kong protestors

Photo: Chris McGrath / Staff/Getty Images

Researchers at Graphika uncovered an amateurish social media campaign targeting the Hong Kong protests that spanned across hundreds of accounts on several mainstream Western platforms.

Why it matters: Chinese-language influence campaigns on foreign platforms are not very well understood by researchers, according to Graphika's Ben Nimmo. This is a window into those operations.

"The campaign focused on video content with short videos supporting police and attacking protesters," said Nimmo, adding that other elements of the campaign dated back to at least 2018 and targeted billionaire emigrant Guo Wengui.

  • The campaign used accounts across YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to link or repost video content from a YouTube channel titled "Rumor Shredder."

Graphika believes the Chinese government did not run the campaign it has dubbed "Spamouflage Dragon" for a few reasons:

  • The campaign appears to have used long-dormant, high-follower accounts that were purchased after being stolen or repurposed. The accounts were not typically relevant — one, was taken from an American bank — and the campaign didn't do a good job of scrubbing earlier content to camouflage the change in tone.
  • The accounts seemed to interact mostly with each other and struggled to generate external attention.
  • Nimmo said the campaign was most likely run by amateurs or a private social media campaign firm.

Social media networks removed assets belonging to the "Spamouflage Dragon" in August.

Go deeper: Hong Kong police use tear gas and water cannons on protesters in clashes