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Twitter Removes 20,000 Accounts in Chinese Disinformation Campaign

Twitter Removes 20,000 Accounts in Chinese Disinformation Campaign

Twitter has taken to removing over 20,000 “highly engaged” accounts involved in China’s “coordinated effort” to spread state-linked disinformation about the Coronavirus and Hong Kong, according to their statements in a report from The New York Times

Last week, the social media site found 23,750 accounts owned and operated by the Wu Mao 50-Cent Army, the state’s proxy organization engaging in “a full spectrum of propaganda operations” through the use of “overt state media and covert personal accounts,” according to a report conducted by The Stanford Internet Observatory out of Stanford University. The subject of these disinformation campaigns varied between controversial figures and events such as President Trump, Taiwan’s independence, the protests in Hong Kong, the exile of billionaire sympathizer Guo Wengui, and the state’s response to COVID-19.

The report details how Chinese officials fought back against claims that the virus started in Wuhan, “suggesting without evidence” that the virus was somehow the result of the United States. This is a different narrative from the one these accounts pushed in February, accusing the Hong Kong protesters of overhyping the threat as “rumors” to use as “panic bullets.” This is consistent with my previous report on China’s strengthening of a novel “cyber-police” to terrorize critics of the Communist Party’s handling of the virus, subjecting over 800 million web users to new restrictions and multiple police raids against Chinese residents. The most notorious example of this is of course the late Dr. Li Wenliang, a former Wuhan medical expert who warned of the “mysterious virus” and was forced into silence via interrogation before dying of COVID-19.

At the time, my report detailed how the spread was the result of the state’s arbitrary political bias being prioritized over the health of common people. It’s ironic that by March, Chinese propaganda accounts pointed the finger elsewhere in precisely this way, praising the Communist Party’s response and instead calling on the United States to “put aside political bias” in the interest of health and safety. At the same time, this response to American institutions wasn’t without a good point. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Twitter should also be criticized for allowing posts from the US accusing China of creating the coronavirus as a bioweapon without evidence.

“China’s efforts and achievements in fighting the coronavirus epidemic are real and obvious to all,” Hua told the Times. “Apart from those with extreme malice who slander China, the unbiased people of the international community can all see it clearly and hold a high degree of approval.” The report claims these accounts were only uncovered in recent weeks, though were “generally not sophisticated enough to fool a viewer into believing they were operated by real people”, Twitter said. By April, the Chinese accounts countered these narratives by claiming China was “under control,” arguing it was the state’s “unity national spirit” which led to the “rebirth of Wuhan” and the Chinese way of life. These, of course, are just a bunch of jingoistic platitudes any nationalist can use to wipe away tragedies out of sight and out of mind. The virus, however, didn’t seem to be in on the plan.

The Times is correct to say China was simply “copying the disinformation playbook” laid out by Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Whereas Russian proxy organizations used 50,000 accounts to reach over 600,000 Americans from 2015 until 2017, China has used over 150,000 in a much shorter amount of time, although many of them failed to survive more than a few days before being detected. This speaks to the impressive scale of such Chinese operations, though a lack of sophistication. Few of the accounts managed to even write a bio or get 10 organic followers before removal and some accounts appeared to be tweeting in both Russian and Chinese simultaneously. 

Though it is unclear what noticeable effects, if any, the Chinese government’s disinformation campaign has had on Twitter, it remains to be seen if this constitutes their last effort to sway the global conversation on COVID-19. This mass removal of accounts comes almost a year after 200,000 accounts were found engaging in similar activities aimed at pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. If nothing else, the latest campaign suggests that China’s appetite for spreading online misinformation will likely continue undeterred.