Researchers from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have identified a new influence campaign on YouTube that promotes pro-China and anti-United States narratives. The campaign, known as Shadow Play, consists of at least 30 YouTube channels that have collectively produced over 4,500 videos, attracting nearly 120 million views and gaining 730,000 subscribers. While the origin of the campaign is unknown, it is believed to be operated by a Mandarin-speaking actor.
The content of the videos in the Shadow Play campaign portrays China in a positive light while criticizing the United States. The campaign also uses artificially generated people and voices in its videos, a tactic that is uncommon in Chinese influence operations. The success of the campaign is attributed to its ability to attract a large number of views and subscribers, which researchers describe as unprecedented for a China-linked influence operation.
ASPI believes that the campaign extends beyond the 30 channels they have identified, and they expect to find more channels publishing content in non-English languages as part of this network. Additionally, the behavior of the threat actor does not align with that of known state actors, leading researchers to suggest that the operator could be a commercial entity with some degree of state direction or funding.
While Meta has previously identified other influence campaigns with links to China, the tactics and success of the Shadow Play campaign make it unique. The widespread coverage and use of generative AI voiceovers set it apart from previous campaigns. ASPI advises that the Shadow Play campaign is an example of the evolving landscape of online influence operations, where commercial entities may be increasingly operating campaigns alongside government actors.