A Chinese network trying to influence the election via social media has been doing a really terrible job

I think we all remember the constant panic Democrats were in over Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election using social media. Most of those efforts weren’t very impressive and there’s no evidence that any of them actually shifted votes, but a lot of ink was spilled about the danger it presented.

Last Friday were learned that the intelligence community now believes there is a split among nations hostile to the US. China and Iran apparently want Trump to lose the 2020 election and Russia wants Biden to lose. And today we’re getting a close up glimpse of one of the Chinese efforts to make Trump lose via social media. A network of sites dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon” has been putting out news-related videos in English intended to bash the U.S. in general and President Trump in particular.

The network is technologically advanced — using artificial intelligence to create faked faces for profile images — and nimble, producing videos at a pace of roughly one per day since mid-July. One video responded directly to a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for an Internet “clean” of malign Chinese influence less than 36 hours after he made the speech last week.

One three-minute video posted on YouTube by the network on Tuesday, titled “When I voted for trump, I almost sentenced myself to death,” portrayed the president as bashing China and threatening to ban TikTok to bolster his reelection chances after a disastrous federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. The video shows flattering images of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and predicted Trump will lose in November…

U.S. intelligence officials said last week that Chinese officials were seeking to undermine Trump’s quest for reelection. The network highlighted by Graphika, which it dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon” because political messages came from accounts that also produced commercial forms of spam and sought to exploit racial division and unrest in the United States, often aiming blame for these problems at Trump.

“This network is quick on the draw,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations for Graphika, which is based in New York.

Are you suitably terrified about China’s ability to influence the election via social media? Well, you shouldn’t be because this effort was a complete failure. From the report by Graphika:

The tone of these videos was angry and partisan, but they were not a viral success. Some were not viewed at all. Some gathered a handful of views. A few showed viewing numbers in the double digits, and a very few were viewed over 100 times. Typically, each video featured on several different channels simultaneously or all but simultaneously; none of the channels that Graphika viewed appeared to have achieved organic virality.

One reason for this is likely to be that the quality of the videos left much to be desired. The voice-overs were clumsy and unidiomatic. Some appeared to have been poorly automated by a text-to-voice system that introduced basic errors, such as pronouncing the initial letters “U.S.” as “us” (as in “the us government”). Others used idioms that may have been directly translated from Chinese but seemed out of place in English, such as “Cast a chestnut in the fire will burn themselves with fire.”

“Not afraid of shadow crooked, China never causes trouble but it is not afraid of trouble. In response to the unreasonable behavior of the United States, China will certainly make the necessary response to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” proclaimed another video posted on July 24.

As we have already hinted, still others made basic errors in their use of English that marked them out as, at best, incompetent productions with poor quality control. The headline of one video – “Public blamed Trump’s inaction” – became, on the screen, “Public blamed Trump sinaction.” Another claimed that the U.S. government “never has a lower bound” and seems to be “very good at be mischievous.”

“Cast a chestnut in the fire will burn themselves with fire” will, I’m sure, convince a lot of people to vote for Biden who otherwise would have voted for Trump. Well, maybe not a lot of people since only three people viewed it. And for all we know the three people who saw it were Chinese nationals who can’t vote in the 2020 election anyway.

The point is that these efforts are pathetic. If the Chinese intend to influence the 2020 election they are going to have to do a lot better than the YouTube equivalent of spam.

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