Just because Twitter is banned in mainland China doesn’t mean Beijing won’t use it to influence public opinion around the world.
Twitter announced Thursday it removed 23,750 accounts linked to Chinese-backed propaganda campaigns. Those accounts made up the core of the effort, the company said, while another 150,000 sought to amplify the content on those core accounts. Much of the activity was aimed at undermining pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the coronavirus pandemic and discrediting Chinese dissidents, researchers found.
Researchers from Stanford University’s Internet Observatory determined that the Twitter activity focused on COVID-19 accelerated in January and peaked in March. Often, the accounts would praise the Chinese government’s response to the pandemic, call for global unity on the issue and bristle at the notion that Taiwan’s government responded to the health crisis in an effective manner.
The themes echo prior propaganda in other suspected Chinese social media operations and official state media narratives, which have refuted questions about how China’s government has responded to the coronavirus outbreak.
Other tweets were focused on criticism of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, or sought to harm the reputation of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire who has used his influence to raise awareness about political corruption in his native country.
The Hong Kong tweets praised law enforcement in the semi-autonomous region, frequently advocated for the rule of law and described demonstrators as “thugs.” Meanwhile, tweets about Guo would respond to major news events, such as news reports that he had signed a $1 million deal linked with former chief White House political strategist Steve Bannon.
Stanford researchers found technical evidence linking many of the accounts to user profiles removed in August 2019, suggesting Chinese influence operators had tried to recreate some of the activity previously scrubbed from the social media site.
The overwhelming majority of accounts (78.5%) had zero followers, while 95% had less than eight followers, according to another analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Yet the networks apparently relied on vast amounts of bot traffic, as 156 tweets from accounts with zero followers received more than 50 likes.
Twitter also said it had removed batches of accounts spreading pro-government messaging on behalf of the Russian government and AKP, the ruling party in Turkey.