Fake faces peddling false news as US poll looms
It's hard to know what to believe these days, as weaponised tweets and deliberate disinformation spread around the world like wildfire, leaping from the internet to traditional press outlets, sowing confusion in the public commons.
In these harried days before today's US election, a loose coalition of anti-communist agitators and Trump supporters in Asia have made a number of clumsy, last-minute attempts to tilt opinion against candidate Joe Biden in favour of incumbent Donald Trump by focusing on the Biden family's connections to China.
Desperate for an October surprise with which to turn the course history, pro-Trump outlets such as Fox News, Bannon's War Room, Apple Daily and others have breathlessly swallowed up poorly sourced news from dubious sources and thus churned out flawed stories attacking Mr Biden, the most egregious recent case being a "dossier" produced by Martin Aspen at Typhoon Investigations detailing the China business connections of Joe Biden's son Hunter.
The Typhoon report has been exposed by sharp-eyed journalists at NBC News of being authored by a fake person, the spurious photograph of whom is a realistic avatar created by AI.
The 64-page "Martin Aspen" dossier is a fraudulent project, fraught with slimy intrigue throughout.
For starters, there is no such person as Martin Aspen, self-identified Swiss security analyst. There does exist a Twitter account under that name which contains postings and some interaction with other users.
Real persons and organisations followed by the fake account include: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, "Stand with HK", "HKDemocracyNow" and "FiveDemandsNotOneLess."
On Martin Aspen's home page appears the photo of what appears to be a reasonably rugged, handsome man. Demonstrated to be an AI creation by NBC, it is composed of pixels and nothing more. It turns out Aspen's photo of his new home in Italy was lifted from a travel blog. His Swiss company never heard of him; no one by that name even lives in Switzerland.
So who is the puppet-master behind this fictitious person?
Martin Aspen's Twitter activity offers some clues, given the predominance of names associated with the Hong Kong protest movement.
But it should be noted that at least one of the followers appears to be a fake persona based on a well-known fake persona, that of Ron Vara, which is an anagram-inspired name of White House China adviser Peter Navarro. Is there a Navarro connection? Is it the tip of an iceberg or just the tip of the hat?
The Ron Vara account is attributed to a self-described "Intelligence Expert" and "China Hand" residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But is Martin Aspen's Ron Vara the same fictitious personage as Mr Navarro's Ron Vara? Reading through the posts and links, it's hard to see the Ron Vara account as anything but a tongue-in-cheek job. For example, Ron Vara's Chinese name is the intentionally insulting "Long Fuhua", which means "Dragon Corrupt-China".
As for Martin Aspen's followers on Twitter, some of them appear to be fake accounts following a fake account, while a few might be actual people with extremely small followings. Perhaps they were duped by the Martin Aspen persona, or perhaps are somehow complicit with it. It's a rabbit hole of Asian untruths with an American accent.
Peeking out from behind the mask of the fake Martin Aspen is the real Christopher Balding, an American researcher who studied economics at the University of California, Irvine when Peter Navarro was still teaching economics there.
Dr Balding, who peddled the mystery dossier to numerous media outlets, has alternately stood by his story and adjusted his story. In the process, he has taken at least partial credit for the misrepresentation.
In a flurry of tweets defending his connection to the tainted project, Dr Balding seemingly betrays his co-conspirators when he points to the office of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily and founder of Next Digital, as being somehow involved in the hoax.
Jimmy Lai, a prominent anti-China, pro-Trump publisher, denies knowledge of the scheme. The project, priced at US$10,000 (311,600 baht) according to Mr Lai, was apparently too small to require him to sign off on.
But Mr Lai's right-hand man in Taiwan, Mark Simon, an American operative and a well-known anti-communist ideologue, has resigned, taking some of the heat and some of the credit for the ill-fated scoop that backfired so badly.
Dr Balding ironically claims that extraordinary secrecy was necessary to protect the identity of Martin Aspen because as an American researcher he had an "understandable worry about foreign disinformation".
Foreign disinformation? Is it okay if the disinformation is American, not foreign? Does any researcher in his right mind really think piling on more disinformation is a credible way of guarding against disinformation?
Typhoon Investigations appears to have relied mostly on public sources for its doleful, obsessive tracking of Hunter Biden's movements in China.
It's full of innuendo and smoke, but no smoking gun. Dr Balding offers much of the same in this TV appearance on a recent China Unscripted podcast, in which he suggested that China might have salacious material on Hunter Biden. His proof? A personal knowledge of "how China works".
With Dr Balding's credibility in question, his previous attacks on Huawei and Zhenhua, both of which got ample play in the mainstream media, have to be taken with a big grain of salt. He speculates. He tells bald-faced lies. Finally, he made a bumbling mess of a covert operation and got caught at it.
Producing and peddling fake news in the service of an anti-China narrative is not just a mockery of journalism and academics, it's bad intelligence work. But it back-fired. The trumped-up anti-China narrative has become an anti-Trump narrative.
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.