On October 23, Canada’s Foreign Ministry said it had discovered a disinformation campaign, likely tied to China, aimed at discrediting dozens of Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The ministry said the campaign took place in August and September. It used new and hijacked social media accounts to bulk-post messages targeting Canadian politicians.
A Chinese Embassy in Canada spokesperson dismissed Canada’s accusation as baseless.
“Canada was a downright liar and disseminator of false information… Beijing has never meddled in another nation’s domestic affairs.”
That is false.
The Canadian government's report is based on an investigation conducted by its Rapid Response Mechanism cyber intelligence unit in cooperation with the social media platforms.
The investigation exposed China’s disinformation campaign dubbed “Spamouflage” -- for its tactic of using “a network of new or hijacked social media accounts that posts and increases the number of propaganda messages across multiple social media platforms – including Facebook, X/Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Medium, Reddit, TikTok, and LinkedIn.”
Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) Canada is part of the Rapid Response Mechanism set up by G7 countries in 2018 “to identify and respond to diverse and evolving foreign threats to democracy.”
Beginning in early August 2023, a “bot network left thousands of comments in English and French on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) accounts of MPs, claiming a critic of the Chinese Communist Party in Canada had accused the various MPs of criminal and ethical violations,” RRM Canada reported.
The bot network was likely part of the network previously identified by the United States Department of Justice and others and known as “Spamouflage,” which technology companies and threat intelligence experts have connected to China. In Canada, its goal was to discredit at least 50 targeted MPs and silence criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, confirmed to Polygraph.info that the company was in touch with the Canadian government about this campaign, “much of which was disabled by our automated systems working to find spam and other violations.”
Canada’s Toronto Star news site reported it had independently verified that most of the comments were posted during Chinese business hours and that many of the comments had “grammatical and punctuation errors or used uncommon phrases.”
Albert Zhang, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute specializing in foreign cyber interference, told the Toronto Star that the campaign is aimed to “undermine Canadian public trust in their government.”
While the Chinese Embassy in Canada claims that “Beijing has never meddled in another nation’s domestic affairs,” China has in fact repeatedly conducted online disinformation campaigns to swing public opinion abroad.
The RRM Canada report noted that the bot network involved in the Spamouflage campaign was also linked to spreading the false claim that the Hawaiian wildfires earlier this year were caused by a U.S. weather weapon test, as well as disinformation about Japan’s release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake. Polygraph.info has reported on both of those disinformation campaigns.
Meta also told Polygraph.info that it has reported a total of seven covert influence operations from China since 2017, with over half disrupted in the last year.
A Chinese group identified as Dragonbridge has run a series of fake social media grassroots campaigns to influence U.S. public opinion, cybersecurity firm Mandiant reported in 2022. The Chinese government spent millions of dollars on the Dragonbridge disinformation campaigns, including cross-platform posts designed to demoralize voters and sabotage the November 2022 U.S. midterm elections, Mandiant said.
Microsoft reported in September that a network of Chinese-controlled social media accounts was seeking to influence U.S. voters by using artificial intelligence. According to Microsoft, the campaign to create politically charged content in English and “mimic U.S. voters” began in March of this year.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank and author of “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive,” wrote that Beijing has “attempted to intervene in elections through coordinated information and disinformation campaigns designed to promote candidates sympathetic to the Chinese government and its actions.”
It has done so in Australia, New Zealand and, most notably, Taiwan.
On September 28, the U.S. State Department released a report detailing how China is seeking to reshape the global information environment through manipulating information.
“Beijing uses false or biased information to promote positive views of the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the same time, the PRC suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement,” the report said.