Canada complained to China about 'spamouflage' but stopped short of summoning ambassador

Elaborate foreign interference campaign targeted Prime Minister, Conservative Leader, dozens of MPs and a Canadian-based Communist Party critic

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OTTAWA — The Canadian government formally complained to the Chinese government about its suspected backing of an elaborate foreign interference online spam campaign targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and dozens of MPs. 

In a statement to the National Post, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) spokesperson John Babcock confirmed that the department formally raised concerns directly with officials at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa in what is called a diplomatic “démarche.” That means the department stopped short of formally summoning China’s ambassador Cong Peiwu.

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A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canada did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The démarche is linked to a report published Monday by GAC’s Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) linking the Chinese government to a “spamouflage” campaign that used a network of bot accounts to spam thousands of comments on MPs’ Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) accounts in August and September. 

The comments targeted posts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and dozens of other Liberal and Conservative MPs. The accounts, which were either new or hijacked, usually accused the MP of various criminal or ethical violations. 

According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank published Tuesday, this spamouflage campaign is the first publicly known use by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of videos doctored using artificial intelligence (known as “deepfakes”) as part of a disinformation campaign. 

The network of bot accounts repeatedly shared deepfakes of a Canadian-based Chinese Communist Party (CCP) critic, Liu Xin, that made him appear to say Trudeau “loves pornography” and repeat a conspiracy theory that he paid to cover up a sexual scandal involving a minor. 

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“ASPI assesses that this video is likely the first publicly unearthed example of a sophisticated deepfake audio and face swap commissioned by this network, commonly known as Spamouflage by the research community,” wrote ASPI researcher Albert Zhang. 

“The video attempts to use Liu’s face and voice to spread disinformation about Trudeau. It features a common backdrop that Liu uses, but the audio and video slightly differ slightly from Liu’s usual videos,” he added. 

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Liu is a known CCP critic who regularly posts videos and messages on X and YouTube attacking Chinese president Xi Jinping and his administration in Mandarin. In a YouTube video posted Monday he said he was the one who reported the videos to the Canadian government and that he was considering suing the Chinese government for using his likeness in a disinformation campaign. 

He also said that the Canadian government was now offering him personal protection, though he did not offer any details. GAC did not respond to a question about Liu’s claim.

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“Originally, I was not very well known in Canada, none of these high-level politicians knew about me. The Chinese Communist Party’s actions have ironically made me famous. Now, even the high-ranking officials in the Canadian government know about me,” he said in Mandarin. 

He also told viewers this was far from the first time the CCP targeted him or his family for criticizing the regime. 

“Those fools in the Chinese Communist Party tried to smear and attack me, but it didn’t work. Violence and threats didn’t work either. I’m not afraid. So, what did they do? They resorted to using my name, creating fake videos of me attacking Canadian leaders,” he said. “They tried to create discord between me and the Canadian government … But this trick failed because it was incredibly foolish.” 

Liu did not respond to an emailed request for comment. 

According to ASPI’s research, the spamouflage network comprised nearly 2,000 “inauthentic” social media accounts that made over 15,000 English, French and Mandarin posts targeting at least 50 Conservative and Liberal MPs on Facebook, X and YouTube beginning Aug. 7. 

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The bot network posted thousands of comments until about Sept. 11. In many cases, the language used makes it apparent that the messages were not written by native English speakers. 

“The most common modus operandi of these accounts is to flood replies under both the official and personal social media accounts of Canadian politicians. On X, sometimes the only replies to a politician’s tweet are from inauthentic accounts in the network,” reads the report. 

Most of the messages received very little direct engagement (such as likes, shares or replies), but that wasn’t the point either, according to ASPI. 

“In this case, the CCP is likely aiming to harass and intimidate, rather than attract major engagement. This type of digital transnational repression has become a growing focus for the CCP and continues to be used,” reads the report. 

“In the case of Liu, and in addition to attempts to intimidate and silence him, the new campaign might also be trying to shape Canadian politicians’ perceptions of him, as well as seeking to undermine his work and public reputation.” 

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Originally posted 2023-10-26 15:40:58.