The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been using an army of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to control and manipulate the outside world’s opinion of China-oriented public policy, according to a recent report.
A collaboration between Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute over the course of a seven month investigation discovered “an army of fake accounts” that retweet posts made by Chinese state media and diplomats tens of thousands of times in an effort to amplify the propaganda through the platforms’ algorithms.
Researchers looked at social media communications of Chinese diplomats and 10 of the biggest state propaganda outlets between June of 2020 and February of 2021:
- Chinese diplomats tweeted 201,382 times during the period, averaging 778 times per day. The posts garnered one million comments, 1.3 million retweets, and 7 million likes.
- CCP state-run media manages 176 accounts on Facebook and Twitter. In total, these accounts made 700,000 posts, which garnered more than 27 million comments and reshares, along with 355 million likes.
“The social media accounts of PRC diplomats and state-backed media agencies receive lots of engagement from other users, but a substantial proportion of this engagement is generated by rapid-fire ‘super-spreader’ accounts,” says the report, adding the automated accounts amplify CCP messaging within seconds of their posting.
Researchers found “nearly half of all PRC account retweets originate from the top 1 of the super-spreaders.”
The study found Chinese government officials have only recently started creating a presence on Twitter. Over three-quarters of diplomats who presently have an account only joined the platform in the past two years.
For instance, Liu Xiaoming, former Ambassador to the UK, joined Twitter in October of 2019, and was given over 119,000 followers.
Between June of 2020 and February of 2021, his posts were retweeted more than 43,000 times. More than 10,000 retweets were from accounts that were later on suspended by Twitter. In most weeks, almost 30 to 50 percent of retweets were from accounts discovered to be bots.
In a dose of asymmetrical warfare, Beijing strictly regulates media and internet within its borders, blocking Western influence in the country. But through western social media platforms, the Communist Party is welcomed and protected by Big Tech, putting the regime in a position to spread its influencing operations to people all over the world.
“It’s creating a significant challenge for Western democracies. We don’t have the same capacity to influence international audiences given that China has walled off its internet. That creates a significant asymmetric advantage,” Jacob Wallis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said to AP.
Labels and suspensions
As of March 1, only 14 percent of Chinese diplomat accounts on Twitter were properly labeled as government-affiliated. The practice started in August last year.
Hong Kong-based China Media Project told Associated Press that Twitter labels for state-affiliated accounts were critical because real users shared and liked fewer posts by CCP outlets and officials once it became clear who they were.
On August 14, Hu Xijin, Editor-in-Chief of propaganda outlet Global Times, complained his Twitter follower growth collapsed after his profile was correctly tagged by Twitter as “China state-affiliated media.”
Although Twitter has taken some action against the botnet promoting Party organs, ban waves have been slow, only occurring after the accounts are active for several weeks or months.
The study identified 26,879 accounts that retweeted Chinese state media or diplomats almost 200,000 times before Twitter levied the ban hammer. One in ten retweets received by 189 Chinese diplomats between June of 2020 and January of 2021 were found to be from accounts destroyed in a March 1 ban wave.
However, an additional cluster of fake accounts emerged, racking up more than 16,000 retweets and replies before finally being purged. The study found many of the accounts impersonated UK citizens.
Xinjiang and Hong Kong
In March, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report which detailed how the Chinese regime was using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread propaganda on Xinjiang, a region in China where millions of Uyghurs are subject to genocide by the communist regime.
The Xinjiang Audio-Video Publishing House, which is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), was found to have funded a marketing company tasked with creating propaganda videos purporting to show Uyghurs are supportive of the CCP’s persecution.
“Those videos were then amplified on Twitter and YouTube by a network of inauthentic accounts. The Twitter accounts also retweeted and liked non-Xinjiang-related tweets by Chinese diplomatic officials and Chinese state-affiliated media in 2020,” ASPI stated.
In August 2019, Reclaim The Net reported Twitter was allowing mouthpiece Xinhua to run a campaign against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong via the platform’s promoted tweet ad feature.
One Xinhua ad claimed “Hong Kong citizens voice their support for the police force, who has exercised extraordinary restraint in the face of riots,” thereby villainizing the millions of protestors who were fighting against the communist takeover of their formerly democratic city.