Analysis exposes fake social media accounts pushing CCP propaganda
The Associated Press
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has opened a new front in its long, ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media.
Liu Xiaoming, who recently stepped down as China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, is one of the party’s most successful foot soldiers on this evolving online battlefield. He joined Twitter in October 2019, as scores of Chinese diplomats surged onto Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.
Since then, Liu has elevated his public profile, gaining a following of more than 119,000 as he transformed himself into an exemplar of China’s new sharp-edged “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term borrowed from the title of a top-grossing Chinese action movie.
His stream of posts were retweeted more than 43,000 times from June 2020 through February 2021. However, much of the popular support Liu and many of his colleagues seem to enjoy on Twitter has, in fact, been manufactured.
A seven-month investigation by The Associated Press (AP) and the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
More than half the retweets Liu got from June 2020 through January 2021 came from accounts that Twitter has suspended for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than 10% of the retweets 189 Chinese diplomats got in that period came from accounts that Twitter had suspended by March 1, 2021.
Twitter’s suspensions did not stop the pro-China amplification machine. An additional cluster of fake accounts, many of them impersonating U.K. citizens, continued to push Chinese government content, racking up over 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter kicked them off in recent weeks, in response to the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation.
This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.
Twitter, and others, have identified inauthentic pro-China networks before. The AP and Oxford Internet Institute investigation, however, shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The investigation identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended.
“We will continue to investigate and action accounts that violate our platform manipulation policy, including accounts associated with these networks,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “If we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behavior.”
At least 270 Chinese diplomats in 126 countries are active on Twitter and Facebook. Together with Chinese state media, they control 449 accounts on the two social media platforms, which posted nearly 950,000 times between June 2020 and February 2021. These messages were liked over 350 million times and replied to and shared more than 27 million times, according to the Oxford Internet Institute and AP analysis. Three-quarters of Chinese diplomats on Twitter joined within the past two years.
The move onto Western social media comes as China wages a war for influence on the internet, which CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, pictured, has called “the main battlefield” for public opinion.
To provide users with more context, Twitter in 2020 began labelling accounts belonging to “key government officials” and state-affiliated media. But Twitter had labeled just 14% of Chinese diplomatic accounts as of March 1, 2021, failing to flag dozens of verified profiles.
Facebook also began labeling state-controlled media accounts in 2020. Disclosure is weak in languages other than English, despite Chinese state content having strong distribution in Arabic, French and Spanish, among other languages.
The China Media Project, a Hong Kong research group, found that transparency labels make a difference: Twitter users liked and shared fewer tweets by Chinese news outlets after August 2020, when the platform started flagging them as state-affiliated media and stopped amplifying and recommending their content.
The editor-in-chief of China’s Global Times noticed the impact immediately. On August 14, 2020, Hu Xijin tweeted his dismay at the “China state-affiliated media” label added to his profile, saying his follower growth had plummeted. “It seems Twitter will eventually choke my account,” he wrote.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS