A new report has revealed the Chinese regime is using Twitter to “shape, manage and control narratives” related to its handling of the CCP virus pandemic, the Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, and outspoken Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.
The report, titled “Retweeting through the Great Firewall” by the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found the activity mainly focused on Chinese-speaking audiences outside of mainland China and continued a long-running strategy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to leverage Western social media platforms for its benefit.
The campaigns were essentially “waves of disinformation” tied in with “influence operations” and “diplomatic messaging”—all working in concert to counteract international attention to the regime.
The report examined 348,608 posts, published since January 2018 and up to April 17, 2020. The posts came from 23,750 Twitter accounts. The report found these accounts were active during work hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), in line with Beijing’s time zone. There were almost no posts during the weekends.
Twitter itself has attributed many accounts to the CCP. In a statement in August 2019, Twitter said they had “reliable evidence” to suggest this was a “coordinated state-backed operation.”
“Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” the statement said. Many of those Twitter accounts were accessed via virtual private networks (VPNs).
Twitter, along with Facebook and YouTube, is not accessible in China.
More recently on June 12, Twitter removed 30,000 accounts connected with state-backed operators connected with China, Russia, and Turkey; and removed a further 150,000 “amplifier” accounts which were used to retweet and spread the information across a wider user base.
The ASPI report identified (pdf) examples of the type of content the CCP promoted on Twitter. It found numerous posts related to the Hong Kong protests, which were suggesting pro-democracy protestors interfered with the containment of the CCP virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.
One post included an image of the chairperson of Wuhan General Hospital praising doctors, saying in the post: “At this time of crisis, Hong Kong should be united, but the anti-epidemic period in Hong Kong is chaotic, and chaotic elements still use despicable means to gain political and monetary benefits …”
Another post tried to suggest Taiwan was not successful at containing the virus: “China’s response to fighting pandemics has been the best in the world… [while] Taiwan’s response was learned from mainland China.”
In fact, Taiwan has been praised globally for its successful containment and management of the pandemic resulting in some of the lowest infection rates in the world. As of June 11, Taiwan has 443 cases of the virus and 7 deaths. So far Australia has 7,285 infections and 102 deaths. Both countries have similar populations.
The recent riots and civil unrest emanating from the death of George Floyd in the United States have also been co-opted by the CCP’s twitter campaign. One post on June 3 stated: “The world is strongly questioning the “human rights” of the United States …”
Chinese state-owned media have been leveraging the racism riots in recent weeks to divert attention from its own domestic issues, namely the controversy surrounding its security law over Hong Kong, which would essentially dissolve the “one country, two systems” policy that allows Hong Kong to operate as a democratic country.
On May 30, the Chinese state-owned media, Global Times, a vocal commentator on regime-related issues, published a commentary titled, “Watch out! ‘Beautiful sight’ in HK is spreading across the U.S.”
ASPI found however that despite the coordinated efforts of the Twitter campaign, it still lacked the sophistication, or the “linguistic and cultural refinement” to really engage audiences.
The regime has had to rely on “amplifiers,” essentially hiring influencers to gain access to Twitter accounts with larger followings and more engaged followers to expand its influence.
It may also be a way to make it difficult to trace any links back to the Chinese regime.
Twitter itself has come under scrutiny recently for hiring a new director with ties to the CCP.