It’s hard to know what to believe these days, as weaponized tweets and deliberate disinformation spread around the world, leaping from the internet to traditional press outlets, sowing confusion in the public commons.
In the days leading up to this year’s election, a loose coalition of anti-communist agitators and Trump supporters in Asia contributed to the chaos by making a number of clumsy, last-minute attempts to tilt opinion against candidate Joe Biden in favor 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, Breitbart, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and others have breathlessly swallowed up unvetted news from dubious sources and thus churned out flawed stories attacking 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 NBC News as being authored by a fake person, under a fake avatar image 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 followed by the fake account include: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, “Stand with HK”, HK Democracy Now, and “Five Demands Not OneLess.”
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.
Not real, doesn’t exist. Pure fiction.
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 advisor Peter Navarro.
Is there a Navarro connection, or is this just the tip of the iceberg?
The Ron Vara account is attributed to a self-described “Intelligence Expert” and “China Hand” residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Harvard PhD.
But is Martin Aspen’s Ron Vara the same fictitious personage as 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 somehow complicit with it.
It’s a rabbit hole of untruths with a Hong Kong accent.
Peeking out from behind the fake persona is the real Christopher Balding, an American researcher who attended the University of California, Irvine when Peter Navarro was still teaching there. Balding, who peddled the mystery dossier to numerous media outlets, has adjusted his story and taken at least partial credit for the misrepresentation.
In a flurry of tweets defending his connection to the tainted project, he seemingly betrays his co-conspirators when he points to the office of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily and founder of Next Digital, as a co-conspirator for the hoax.
Jimmy Lai, a prominent anti-China, pro-Trump publisher, denies any knowledge of the scheme. The research project, priced at $10,000, was apparently too small to require him to sign off on. But Jimmy’s Lai’s right-hand man Mark Simon, a well-known anti-communist ideologue, has resigned, taking some of the heat and some of the credit for the contrived dossier and ill-fated scoop that backfired so badly.
Christopher Balding ironically claims that extraordinary secrecy was necessary to protect the identity of author “Martin Aspen” because, “as a researcher” he had an “understandable worry about foreign disinformation.”
Is it okay if disinformation is not foreign? Does any researcher in his right mind really think piling on more disinformation is a credible way of guarding against disinformation?
It is unclear if the mealy-mouthed Christopher Balding is the sole author of the 64-page dossier or if this was something he collaborated on with Next Digital’s Mark Simon, and perhaps others.
Balding shares with the mythic Ron Vara (and his real-world counterpart Ron Navarro) a connection to University of California in Irvine, and like Navarro he made a failed bid for electoral office in California. He has since worked as a professor in Shenzhen and most recently in Ho Chi Minh City. His most recent employer, Fulbright University Vietnam, has gone on the record saying, “Regrettably, Dr. Balding’s action does not reflect the values of this institution.”
Balding has been described as a political grifter, and that’s not entirely derogatory since he is working in the tradition of Donald Trump, Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon, all of whom play fast with the facts and have through their tweets and retweets, podcasts and broadcasts, created “editorial space” to disseminate faulty information such as the Hunter Biden dossier.
Balding recently appeared on a recent Steve Bannon podcast along with self-proclaimed anti-Biden specialist, Rudy Giuliani.
An Apple Daily connection is also palpable, even if it proves to have been a rogue effort by one or more employees without the knowledge or approval of Next Digital boss Jimmy Lai.
The authors of the dossier seem to share Taiwan-based Next Digital’s obsession with Hong Kong, even though the report is reputedly about mainland China. The name of the fake company, Typhoon Investigations, is set against a stormy Hong Kong backdrop, and the fake Twitter accounts among other clues, point to an obsession with the Hong Kong protesters led by Joshua Wong and Nathan Law.
The aura of mystery created by the dashing fictitious persona of Martin Aspen, and the political desperation to smear Biden by any means possible eclipses the dull, pedantic information provided in the report itself. It’s a Steele Dossier wannabe, full of innuendo, hoping to hurt, but with none of the firepower, pizzazz or salaciousness of the Steele document.
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.
Yet innuendo seems to be Christopher Balding’s modus operandi, judging from a recent appearance on a “China Unscripted” podcast in which he suggests that China, wink wink, might have salacious material on Hunter Biden.
His proof? A personal knowledge of how “China works.”
Rather than providing even a shred of evidence he tells his credulous right-wing hosts:
“Until you’ve lived in China…it sounds like complete fantasy but that’s how China works. I’m not making any speculations other than saying China probably had video on him every moment he was in China.”
Balding speculates. He dresses up the facts. He fantasizes. He tells bald-faced lies.
Producing and peddling fake news in the service of an anti-China narrative, he’s made a mockery of both journalism and academics.
But it’s back-fired.
His anti-China narrative has become an anti-anti-China narrative.