Hundreds of Twitter Accounts Linked to China Sowed Discord Around US Election

February 1, 2021 Updated: February 2, 2021

A sophisticated social media operation believed to be linked to China’s communist regime played a key role in spreading disinformation, sowing discord, and amplifying calls for violence during and following the U.S. election in November, a report from Cardiff University has found.

The Crime and Security Research Institute (CSRI), an interdisciplinary unit at Cardiff University whose research aims to help “tackle local, national and global crime and security problems,” issued a two-part report on Jan. 27 (pdf one, pdf two) that described a China-linked influence operation on Twitter that engaged with the presidential election and sowed discord.

The researchers found that the network spread anti-U.S. propaganda, sought to portray anti-communist sentiment in Hong Kong in a negative light, and amplified calls for violence before and after the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. While some of the Twitter messages the network pushed echoed the “themes used by the right-wing US ‘patriot’ communities in their messaging,” the “vast majority of the tweets referencing President [Donald] Trump were negative in sentiment,” the report found.

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Protesters clash with police at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

The CSRI team uncovered more than 400 accounts engaging in related suspicious activities, with the accounts shut by Twitter after they were flagged by the researchers and forwarded to the social media company.

Professor Martin Innes, CSRI director, said in a statement that while only Twitter can fully certify an attribution of a given account, an analysis by one of the institute’s research units that used open-source traces “strongly suggests multiple links to China.”

Strong evidence of connection to China includes the use of the Chinese language, and when English was used, there was evidence that it was derived from machine translation tools, CSRI said. Other factors that point to links to China are a focus on topics of interest to Chinese geopolitical interests, account activity only during Chinese office hours, and limited activity during a Chinese national holiday.

“The behaviour of the accounts was sophisticated and disciplined, and seemingly designed to avoid detection by Twitter’s counter-measures,” Innes said, adding that the network seems to have been run as a series of nearly autonomous cells, with minimal links between them designed to protect the network as a whole.

Innes said that the evidence his team collected about the group’s activity “marks the network as a significant attempt to influence the trajectory of US politics by foreign actors.”

One key theme relating to the Capitol incident pushed by the China-linked actors was presenting the United States as a “chaotic nation on the verge of political collapse and major disorder,” the report found. Sometimes, this was in combination with anti-Trump sentiment, with the report citing as an example the message: “Trump’s final madness cannot stop his doomsday.”

Another major motif pushed by the China-linked actors was “the denigration of Hong Kong,” which included a portrayal of Hong Kong as marred by riot-related instability, “ungrateful for China’s efforts,” and as struggling to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak, the report found. There was also a portrayal of UK and U.S. diplomatic efforts with regard to the crisis in Hong Kong as “interference.”

Still another focus of the propagandists was COVID-19, including “using the virus to slander multiple governments as incompetent,” using messaging against former President Donald Trump, in particular criticizing his references to the “China virus.” The accounts also pushed the narrative that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus originated outside of China, with the report citing as one example efforts to link the virus to a U.S. laboratory in Fort Detrick in Maryland.

While CSRI said that it can’t be certain that the network was backed by the Chinese regime, the report noted that the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that it was, and, “on the balance of probabilities, it is unlikely that the network operates without some official awareness and/or guidance. This is significant given the levels of influence and interference in US politics that the accounts have engaged in.”

The report follows an assessment by former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe that China interfered in the 2020 U.S. election.

“Based on all available sources of intelligence, with definitions consistently applied, and reached independent of political considerations or undue pressure—that the People’s Republic of China sought to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections,” Ratcliffe wrote in a letter to Congress (pdf).

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