Chinese nationalist trolls pretend to be Trump supporters ahead of US elections

washington — British researchers say Chinese nationalist trolls have been posing as American supporters of former President Donald Trump on X to try to exploit domestic divisions ahead of the U.S. election.

A report released April 1 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London think tank, says it found four previous Mandarin-tweeting accounts that went silent before re-emerging as American Trump supporter personas tweeting in English.

It linked them to China’s so-called Spamouflage network, which it described as a “long-running and widespread but largely ineffective” campaign to promote pro-Chinese Communist Party narratives.

But Elise Thomas, a senior researcher at the institute and author of the report, said pretending to be Trump supporters is a fresh and more effective tactic.

“They are posing convincingly as Americans, specifically Trump supporters,” she told VOA. “They are getting engagement from what look like real American users. That’s significantly different from what we’ve seen with Spamouflage in the past.”

She pointed out that a traditional Spamouflage tweet might have many likes and retweets, but upon further examination, it’s all from other Spamouflage accounts. Now, they are interacting with predominantly genuine American users.

“What they are doing that is quite different from other Spamouflage accounts is that they are building up authentic audiences using this thing called patriot follow trains, which is basically where people agree to mutually follow one another in order to each build their own follower accounts,” Thomas explained.

Using real viral videos and photos, these accounts seek to amplify divisive issues such as LGBTQ rights, immigration, race, gun control and crime rates.

Some of the accounts mock Biden’s age; others falsely claim that Biden is a pedophile. All seem to be promoting Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again (MAGA),” leading the report to dub this new tactic “MAGAflage.”

One of the X accounts, Ben MAGA 2024, was opened in 2010, but previous posts have been deleted. Since April 18, 2023, the account began to tweet in English with a main theme: Biden is a pedophile and cannot be trusted.

The account tries to build a persona as an American living in Los Angeles. It posted a picture in January with the caption “Good morning! Patriots, I’m 43 years old, and passionately and loyally supporting President Trump!”

In fact, the picture belongs to a travel blog by a Danish man with no indication that he’s a Trump supporter.


This account also retweeted a video from Russian state media Russia Today on February 18, claiming that Biden and the Central Intelligence Agency had sent a neo-Nazi leader to fight in Ukraine.

That post was retweeted by Alex Jones, an American far-right conspiracy theorist and radio show host with 2.2 million followers on X. The post had been viewed nearly 360,000 times as of March 4.

Thomas said by wrapping a topic in a U.S. partisan political frame, they got “a reasonable amount of engagement” from real American users.

This mimics Russia’s playbook during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when U.S. officials say Moscow used information warfare to damage the Clinton campaign, boost Trump’s chances and sow distrust in American democracy, which the Kremlin denies.

The report said some Spamouflage accounts could also be posing as left-wing Biden supporters, though they did not find any.

Twitter has since suspended all the accounts mentioned in the institute’s report.

While just a handful of accounts were identified, the report says there are almost certainly many more, which Thomas worries could have an unseen effect on the U.S. election.

“These [MAGAflage] accounts were very difficult to find. It took quite a lot of time, and I’ve only been able to find a relatively small number of them,” she said. “But because what we know from Spamouflage’s history is that everything it does, it does at massive scale. It would be really out of character for them to be only doing this, if it’s effective, at a small scale. So, that’s my concern, that it may be happening at a significantly larger scale.”

VOA reached out to the Trump and Biden campaigns for comment but did not receive a response as of publication time.

The Spamouflage network was discovered in 2019 by social media analytics firm Graphika and was first used to target Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

Researchers said the network is tied to “individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement,” and has been active across thousands of accounts and more than 50 platforms and forums, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X.


On March 11, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued its annual assessment on the major threats to U.S. interests around the world and warned that China’s government may “attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 at some level because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions.”

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a statement sent to VOA that China is “committed to the principle of noninterference” and that claims about Beijing influencing U.S. presidential elections are “completely fabricated.”

Meta in August shut down close to 9,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts, groups and pages associated with the Spamouflage network.

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