Beijing Cyber Warriors Engage in Political Warfare

Chinese cyber warriors are engaging in political warfare by using a co-ordinated network of social media accounts to spread disinformation aimed at destroying trust in Australian political leaders and the federal parliament. The Spamouflage disinformation and propaganda network has been targeting the Australian parliament since late last year, spreading lies and disinformation in a bid to undermine democracy. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) identified dozens of accounts that have been working together on social media platform Twitter in recent months to amplify concerns about behaviour in Parliament House. The accounts are part of the Spamouflage network, also known as Spamouflage Dragon, which social media giants Twitter, Meta and Google attributed in 2019 as being linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Jake Wallis, head of information operations at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said the network had evolved from widely promoting CCP ideology to targeting specific issues and countries. “It was inevitable that these CCP-linked networks would target Australian politics,’’ Dr Wallis said.  “This is the Chinese state trying to build a global propaganda and disinformation machine that they can activate strategically. “There is some degree of experimental trial and error and learning how to manipulate international political discourse via social media platforms. It’s a sign of what’s to come. “It’s time for us to think strategically about the role of political warfare and how we protect ourselves from it.” The operatives have previously attacked prominent women of Asian heritage living in Western democracies, including Vicky Xu, an Australian researcher who infuriated Beijing with a report highlighting the plight of the Uighur minority in China.

The same group also attacked Australian mining company Lynas last year, spreading false claims about the company’s health and environmental record. Lynas is the biggest challenger to China’s global monopoly on rare earth minerals. One of the false accounts, which uses apparent stock photos of a bikini-clad woman, cycles through a pattern of three tweets every day, first using unsubstantiated or false claims about sexual abuse within Australia’s parliament, followed by a tweet attacking Australia’s banks. Both contain the hashtags #QandA and #auspol, to attempt to get the tweets picked up in common searches. The third tweet of each day attacks Ms Xu. Other accounts have tweeted in Mandarin, raising the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, the claims made against former Attorney-General Christian Porter, and revisiting a scandal from 2021 when a male staffer was sacked for a lewd act on a female MP’s desk.

The accounts give themselves away by making mistakes, including referring to parliament as the “Capitol’’ and “Congress’’ – American terms not used in Australia. While ASPI analysed the activity of just 33 Twitter accounts, Spamouflage has previously been identified as operating thousands of accounts across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Analyst Albert Zhang said ASPI had identified “a politically motivated campaign targeting the Australian political system by amplifying content about sexual assault and misconduct allegations in Parliament House and spreading disinformation about those cases in order to undermine trust in Australian politicians, politics and, ultimately, Australian democracy. “They are doing this by amplifying other people’s negative posts but also, at times, creating their own posts to spread disinformation,’’ he said. “On top of that, they are posting in ways that positively reinforce the views of fringe political parties.’’

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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Boosting engagement with fringe views, and trying to stimulate discussions on social media about alleged misdeed at Parliament House, using popular hashtags, can result in social media posts becoming more highly ranked, and being promoted by algorithms to attain better audiences. While the social media platforms routinely suspend and close the accounts down, more spring up immediately, with ASPI research showing they are mainly active during Beijing business hours. Dr Wallis said Australian government intervention may be needed. “We’ve long discussed China’s preference for political warfare and we can look to examples in Europe and how Russia has integrated foreign interference, disinformation and subversion as part of its broader war against Ukraine,’’ he said. “Democracies, since the end of the Cold War, are not used to contesting the information domain, we’re not comfortable with it.


“But authoritarian countries are very comfortable with it, both at home and abroad, and that’s something we’ve got to understand and be more prepared to respond to. “We need to think about whether this requires a more robust policy response. Currently it is being left to private companies but we need to think about whether there is a much stronger role for the government, because the interests of private companies are not the same as the interests of the Australian people. ASPI is making a submission to the Senate select committee on foreign interference through social media, which is examining the way social media companies headquartered in the West are being weaponised by authoritarian states. It is also examining the activities of Chinese-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat.


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