Democrats Demand Answers from Musk on China-Backed Influence Operations

Democrats Demand Answers from Musk on China-Backed Influence Operations
SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk prepares to take part in a joint news conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert at the SpaceX Starbase, in Brownsville, Texas, on Aug. 25, 2022. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Andrew Thornebrooke

Three Democrat lawmakers are calling on Twitter chief Elon Musk to divulge information related to the alleged manipulation of the platform by China-backed actors in recent weeks.

Numerous Chinese-language accounts on Twitter, many of them either new or dormant, allegedly flooded the platform with spam for several hours in late November to restrict access to news about ongoing protests throughout China.

The posts were written primarily in Mandarin and appear to have been sponsored by China’s communist regime, according to a letter (pdf) signed by House Democrats Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), and Jackie Speier (Calif.).

“We write today to express our deep concern about the platform manipulation campaign on Twitter that restricted access to news about the protests in the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” the letter said, using the official name of communist China.

“We are gravely concerned about the potential impacts of the PRC’s growing cyber-enabled capabilities, including foreign malign influence operations, on U.S. national security interests both at home and abroad.”

The letter follows a rare two weeks of open protests against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its brutal zero-COVID policies.
Chinese people throughout the country took to the streets and condemned the authoritarian overreach of the CCP after 10 Uyghurs were killed in an apartment fire in Urumqi and the regime’s lockdown measures were blamed.
During the protests, networks of Chinese-language accounts on Twitter reportedly attempted to block access to coverage of the protests by flooding the platform with advertisements for escort services and other nuisance posts.

Chinese Spam ‘Overwhelmed’ Twitter Feeds

The lawmakers’ letter cited a Washington Post story, which asserted that Twitter had been used to launch a coordinated influence operation aimed at suppressing information about the protests.

“For hours, searches on Twitter for information about the protests in the PRC were filled with spam and useless tweets, while Twitter’s reduced staff reportedly worked to resolve the information campaign,” the lawmakers’ letter said.

Similarly, cybersecurity analysts said that the influence operation appeared to have been conducted with the purpose of drowning out content related to the protests.

“In this case, the spambots did not tell any particular story or push a state-sponsored narrative. Instead, they simply overwhelmed social media feeds with spam content,” said intelligence firm Recorded Future’s Charity Wright in an NBC interview shared on Twitter.

According to Wright, networks of thousands of automated bot accounts posted Chinese-language tweets which coopted hashtags relevant to the protests and rendered the posts more difficult to find.

Instead of finding posts about protests in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Wuhan, users were more likely to find advertisements for escort services and pornography.

The sophistication and scale of the operation, Wright said, indicated that it was orchestrated by the CCP or outsourced by the regime to another group.

Both the Washington Post Story and the Democrat lawmakers who cited it linked the emergence of the influence campaign to Musk’s recent firing of thousands of Twitter employees, including most of Twitter’s communications team.

To that end, the Democrats demanded that Musk explain how his changes to the company may have allowed platform manipulation to occur.

“To ensure that the United States is prepared to counter, thwart, and deter foreign influence threats online, it is critical that we understand the extent of the PRC’s potential manipulation of Twitter and identify how recent changes at Twitter are affecting the threat of CCP foreign influence operations on social media,” the letter said.

Foreign Influence Everywhere

It is not the first time that China-based influence operations have surfaced on Twitter.
Indeed, despite the impulse to link malign activity to Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the platform has been vulnerable to foreign influence campaigns for years—a fact Musk himself noted in November.
“The amount of pro psy ops on Twitter is ridiculous!” Musk said in one post.
In one example from September 2022, Meta Platforms announced it had dismantled four China-based influence operations across its Facebook and Instagram platforms, and collaborated with Twitter to do the same.

Relatedly, Musk’s Twitter has just recently begun to grapple with the platform’s longstanding role in enhancing the influence of the Democratic Party and progressive movements.

In a series of posts created in coordination with journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, Musk unveiled the “Twitter Files,” a series of tweets aimed at providing transparency into how previous Twitter leadership suppressed information from conservative accounts, going so far as to shadow ban conservative candidates for office from using the platform regardless of whether the accounts in question had actually violated any of Twitter’s policies.

Recorded Future did not return a request for comment.

Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.