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China critic says he’s the target of deepfake ‘spamouflage’ attack by Beijing

VANCOUVER — The YouTube video appears to show a person who looks like Liu Xin making unfounded remarks about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying among other things that “he is a man who loves porn.”

But Liu, 60, a prominent online critic of China’s government who lives in Burnaby, B.C., says he didn’t say anything of the sort.

The video is a deepfake creation according to Liu and an Australian security think-tank that analyzed it, and is part of an extensive “spamouflage” campaign that Global Affairs Canada believes is connected to China.

The video and others making accusations of “criminal and ethical violations” by Canadian politicians were posted on the social media accounts of MPs across the political spectrum, Global Affairs says, including Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre.

But Liu says it was he, and not the maligned politicians, who was China’s main target in the campaign, which Global Affairs says involved a bot network posting thousands of comments and links to the fake videos.

“Their attack on me is extremely malicious and these fake videos have been taking an emotional toll on me,” says Liu, who runs a Chinese-language YouTube channel with 164,000 subscribers under the name “Lao Deng.” He also has more than 300,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Liu says he suspects the primary goal of the campaign was to undermine him in the eyes of the public and Canadian politicians. 

“If Mr. Trudeau is standing in front of me, I want to tell him: this isn’t me. Both of us are victims of a spamouflage campaign deployed by the Chinese government,” Liu says in an interview conducted in Mandarin, adding that he has been “under tremendous pressure” as a result.

Global Affairs describes spamouflage, a combination of spam and camouflage, as a network of new or hijacked social media accounts that are used to post propaganda messages. 

A Global Affairs spokesman said in an email Tuesday that its officials briefed Liu about the fake videos on Oct. 23, confirming they were referring to him in a statement that instead calls him a “popular Chinese-speaking figure.”

The earlier statement says that in addition to discrediting the Canadian politicians named in the videos, the campaign “likely seeks to silence criticism of the CPP (Chinese Communist Party) by getting MPs to distance themselves from (Liu) and discouraging wider online communities from engaging with (Liu).” 

It says the campaign culminated in September.

The Australian Security Policy Institute, based in Canberra, released an analysis on Oct. 24 that says the spamouflage campaign is “very likely linked to the Chinese government”.

“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,” the analysis says.

The institute says the videos falsely depicting Liu are an example of deepfake technology made with the help of artificial intelligence. It says the videos are sophisticated and use the same backdrop as Liu’s authentic videos. 

But it says there are telltale signs of deceit: in one video, the chin of the speaker becomes misaligned with the face, and in all the fakes, Liu’s face is relatively devoid of wrinkles or expression.

There are also editing glitches, the security group says, while noting that Liu had never uploaded a similar video about Trudeau to his YouTube channel.

If confirmed to be a product of the Chinese government “it would be the first publicly unearthed example of the CCP using an AI-enabled face swap in its internationally focused information operations and disinformation campaigns,” the institute says.

Liu says there is a Chinese saying that describes the “malicious tactic,” to kill with a borrowed knife.

“They are trying to intimidate and harm me by trying to get the Canadian government to turn their back on me,” he says.

“I was once helpless and frustrated. However, I managed to hang in there by clinging to the belief that the truth will come out in the wash — although it takes time.”

Liu says he suspected the spamouflage campaign could also be intended to interfere with Canadian elections by discrediting politicians via fake videos.

“It’s OK to criticize a country’s policy, but it’s really hostile and despicable to make false allegations against a politician’s personal life and morals without any evidence,” says Liu.

Liu has been a vocal critic of China’s government since immigrating to B.C. from China in 2002. He says the Chinese government had been spreading misinformation about him for a long time. 

The Australian Institute says in its analysis that Liu sometimes spreads “unverified claims,” such as accusing China of assassinating Canadian Sikh figure Hardeep Singh Nijjar to frame India and create discord between India and the West.

Canada’s government has connected India to the attack on Nijjar in Surrey.

Liu says he got this “inside scoop” from sources in China, but didn’t elaborate. 

He has also made unverified claims alleging extramarital affairs and other misbehaviour by China’s leaders.

“Because of my work and what I have been doing, the Chinese Communist Party has put me at the top of their overseas blacklist,” says Liu.

Liu says his income fluctuates based on the popularity of his videos. Sometimes he can make $20,000 in a month, although the average is $10,000. 

He splits the income with a team of several people, he says. 

“You won’t get super rich from doing YouTube videos, but you can make a living.” 

He says he’ll continue to criticize Chinese authorities. 

“I am doing meaningful things while making money, so why not keep doing it?” says Liu. 

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2023.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press