China Targets Western Elites Through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube

Journalists, academics, and politicians need better protections: cut off Beijing's access to foreign servers
January 6, 2022 Updated: January 6, 2022

News Analysis

Beijing is systematically mining the world’s social media data—including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—to better understand political opinions and elite networks, and to compile a list of foreign targets.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) goal is to use sophisticated algorithms, big data, artificial intelligence, micro-targeting, and purchased social media accounts for early warning of public opinion trends against the CCP, to influence the global public toward pro-CCP positions, and to introduce schisms within groups critical of Beijing—that turns people against each other where they are uniting against the totalitarian and genocidal regime.

Sophisticated data systems are being used by Beijing’s “state media, propaganda departments, police, military and cyber regulators,” according to a Jan. 1 investigative report by Cate Cadell in The Washington Post. The report draws from “hundreds of Chinese bidding documents, contracts and company filings.”

The data systems, each of which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, include “increasingly technical surveillance for China’s censorship apparatus.” They compile a network of “foreign targets” in the West and seek to “maintain control over the Internet,” according to the Post.

They “include a $320,000 Chinese state media software program that mines Twitter and Facebook to create a database of foreign journalists and academics; a $216,000 Beijing police intelligence program that analyzes Western chatter on Hong Kong and Taiwan; and a cybercenter in Xinjiang, home to most of China’s Uyghur population, that catalogues the mainly Muslim minority group’s language content abroad,” according to the report.

Companies, state media, and a half dozen Chinese universities are listed as supplying software to the regime for these purposes. One Shanghai company claims to use “advanced big data mining and artificial intelligence analysis technology” that covers over 90 percent of foreign social media in the United States, Europe, and countries that neighbor China, according to the report.

An analyst in Beijing who works for China’s Central Propaganda Department told the Post that with the new data systems, “we can better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel.” The Department compiled profiles of individual politicians, academics, and journalists.

The systems “automatically collect and store Facebook and Twitter data in real time on domestic Chinese servers for analysis,” according to four of the Post’s sources in Beijing. This sounds like a violation of Twitter and Facebook rules that ban automated collection of data, except in cases of prior authorization. Twitter also bans data mining to infer users’ political, ethnic, or racial characteristics—a rule that the regime is now apparently violating.

China’s state media claimed in 2014 that over 2 million individuals worked in public opinion analysis. The new systems sometimes operate 24 hours, and include teams of English and foreign policy specialists. In 2018, according to state media, the regime’s online opinion analysis industry was valued at billions of dollars and growing at 50 percent annually.

A China Daily bidding document from 2020 cited in the report is for a $300,000 “foreign personnel analysis platform.” The platform will mine Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for information on “well known Western media journalists” and other “key personnel from political, business and media circles.”

The software must “map the relationships between target personnel and uncover ‘factions’ between personnel, measuring their ‘China tendencies’ and building an alarm system that automatically flags ‘false statements and reports on China,’” according to the Post.

A Beijing Police Intelligence Command Unit paid $30,570 to People’s Daily Online to “trawl foreign social media and produce reports on unspecified ‘key personnel and organizations,’” according to the report, “gathering information on their ‘basic circumstances, background and relationships.’”

These systems mostly monitor domestic Chinese media, according to Post sources, including “highly sensitive viral trends online.” But, since mid-2019, they have also monitored foreign social media. Reporting to the Cyberspace Administration of China must include personal details of social media users, according to the Post.

“The ultimate purpose of analysis and prediction is to guide and intervene in public opinion,” a People’s Daily public opinion analyst named Liao Canliang wrote. The Post quoted the analyst as writing in an article, “Public data from social network users can be used to analyze the characteristics and preferences of users, and then guide them in a targeted manner.”

This is also known as “micro-targeting,” used by Cambridge Analytica to mold U.S. public opinion ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Twitter suspended 23,000 accounts in 2020 that it alleged were linked to the CCP for covert use in the spreading of propaganda targeting pro-democracy Hong Kong protests.

In December, Twitter removed another 2,048 accounts that coordinated their content to undermine human rights advocacy against abuse of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The U.S. State Department and other government entities in Europe and Britain have recognized the ongoing genocide against Uyghurs in that area.

Epoch Times Photo
Tribunal chair Geoffrey Nice (C) delivers the verdict of the independent tribunal assessing evidence on China’s alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people, in London, on Dec. 9, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo)

Many of the systems flag “sensitive” content related to ethnic minorities in China, and can monitor individual social media users over time.

“A $43,000 system purchased by police in central China’s Shangnan county included a ‘foreign sensitive information’ collection system that requested Uyghur and Tibetan staff translators,” according to the Post.

The accounts that Twitter closed since 2020 are a “small fraction” of the artificial pro-Beijing social media messaging, according to experts cited by the Post.

Many of the police contracts since 2020 state that “People’s Daily was chosen to conduct monitoring on the basis of its technical ability to gather data abroad,” according to the Post.

The report quotes the Guangdong Police Department as saying in 2020 that People’s Daily is “the only one in the industry that deploys overseas servers. It is a public opinion service organization that can monitor and collect more than 8,000 overseas media without ‘overturning the wall.'”

The Chinese regime’s use of data servers in the West point to one potential counter-strategy against Beijing’s invasive social media influence and surveillance campaign: legal bans on allowing China to operate servers outside its own Great Firewall. If Beijing does not allow free use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by its own citizens, then why should the West allow China to abuse these platforms outside of its borders?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).