Twitter removes thousands of China-backed disinformation accounts

Twitter has suspended tens of thousands of accounts that it said were part of a “manipulative” disinformation campaign run by the Chinese government, using Russian-style tactics to spread pro-Beijing messaging around the Hong Kong protests and coronavirus.

The social-media platform said in a statement on Thursday that it had culled 23,750 accounts that were part of a co-ordinated influence campaign run by the People’s Republic of China, plus 150,000 “amplifier” accounts that were designed to further boost that content. 

Usually known for propaganda campaigns involving official state-backed media outlets, China’s use of a “covert” operation involving fake accounts signals a shift towards disinformation strategies more commonly associated with Russia and Iran.

“This entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and co-ordinated activities,” Twitter said. “They were tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favorable to the Communist Party of China, while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.” 

The takedown, one of the biggest carried out by Twitter to date, comes as US and European governments have accused China publicly of spreading disinformation about coronavirus to capitalise on the health emergency for its own strategic purposes — claims that Beijing has rebuffed.

Over the past two years, Twitter and larger rival Facebook have detected and taken down dozens of disinformation operations, typically linked to Russia or Iran, which use fake accounts in a bid to influence western elections and sow discord.

While Beijing has tended to use the platforms — which are blocked in mainland China — to spread overt propaganda, last year Twitter, Facebook and Google took down accounts that they claimed were part of a covert Chinese campaign tasked with spreading disinformation against pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters. Here, Twitter removed a network of 936 core accounts, plus 200,000 “spammy” accounts that boosted that content.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which analysed the accounts in Twitter’s latest takedown, the newest campaign focused on influencing the Chinese diaspora and “weaponise[d] the US government’s response to domestic protest and civil unrest in order to create the perception of moral equivalence with the suppression of protest in Hong Kong”. 

Jacob Wallis, senior analyst at ASPI, said that they are looking at a new cohort of actors under consideration by Twitter for takedowns, who are “pivoting to the US protests”.

“This level of co-ordination, and the regimented nature of these posting patterns, all suggest it’s a state actor,” said Mr Wallis of Twitter’s takedown, adding that some operatives were “rippling onto Facebook” too.

The “rough and ready” nature of the visual memes posted suggests the influence network is “driven by some pressure, with demands to be rapid in response, potentially driven by volume targets,” said Mr Wallis, in contrast to Russia’s “sophisticated development of personas”.

The campaign also spread narratives around Guo Wengui, a Chinese tycoon living in exile in the US who has held meetings with Steve Bannon, and self-governed Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, the ASPI said. 

Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who also analysed the data, said that tweeting by some accounts around the coronavirus pandemic — typically praising China’s response to the crisis — began to rise in January and peaked in late March. 

While most of these accounts were created just weeks before they began to tweet in late January, some were created as early as September 2019, the SIO said. 

Overall, the Chinese campaign on Twitter “failed to achieve considerable traction on the service”, with most accounts having low follower numbers and low engagement metrics, Twitter said.

The campaign comes amid wider efforts by China to shape public understanding of the pandemic. In a separate report released this week, the SIO found that China had a network of English-language state-backed outlets that regularly use targeted advertising to amplify their messaging, reaching an audience of 10m people on Facebook alone. A third of their posts have been coronavirus-related since January, the SIO said.

Facebook said on Thursday it had removed some “spam accounts” this week linked to the Twitter campaign.

Separately on Thursday, Twitter also said it took down one small disinformation campaign originating in Russia that promoted the ruling United Russia party and attacked political dissidents, and another that appeared to be linked to the Justice and Development party (AKP) headed by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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