Fake Accounts Support Beijing’s Propaganda Campaign on Twitter: Reports

May 15, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

The Chinese regime is heavily relying on Twitter and Facebook to broadcast its state propaganda to the global audience and its online effort has been amplified by fake Twitter accounts, according to recent reports.

“We find that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is increasingly seeking to use its diplomats to amplify the outward-facing propaganda dissemination of state-backed media outlets,” stated Marcel Schliebs, lead author of a report titled “China’s Public Diplomacy Operations, according to a press release.

The report, along with a second report focusing on China’s operations in the UK, was the result of a seven-month joint investigation by the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at the University of Oxford, and the Associated Press.

Before 2019, there were a total of fewer than 50 Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter, but that number has since grown exponentially to 189 accounts as of March 1. As of the same month, there were 84 Chinese diplomatic accounts on Facebook.

According to the reports, these diplomatic accounts were attributed to either the Chinese embassies, ambassadors, consuls, or other embassy staff in 126 countries.

These diplomatic accounts were highly active on Twitter. Between June 2020 and February 2021, these accounts tweeted 201,382 times, and these tweets were liked nearly 7 million times, commented on one million times, and retweeted 1.3 million times.

For example, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chungying, who created her Twitter account in October 2019, tweeted 2,036 times in the nine-month period and her posts were retweeted 171,651 times.

Chinese netizens do not have direct access to either Twitter or Facebook since both are banned in China. They do commonly use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass China’s internet blockade to access banned websites.

The reports also looked into 10 of China’s largest state-run media and their social media activities with their 176 accounts on Twitter and Facebook. During the same nine-month interval, these media posted over 700,000 times, receiving 355 million likes, over 27 million comments, and re-shares, during the same nine-month interval. Then 10 media included Xinhua News and CGTN, the global arm of state broadcaster CCTV.

However, Twitter users might not be able to quickly identify the state-affiliation of the 189 diplomatic accounts. According to the reports, only 14 percent of these accounts, or 27 accounts, were labeled as state content.

Twitter began putting a label on government and state-affiliated media accounts, including key government officials in August last year, in an effort to provide people “with context so they can make informed decisions about what they see.”

Chinese diplomats and state-run media enjoyed such high-level engagement on Twitter because they were boosted in part by “super-spreader accounts.”

“These user accounts rapidly engage with PRC content with just seconds between retweets. We find that nearly half of all PRC account retweets originate from the top 1% of the super-spreaders,” according to the reports.

What’s more, a lot of the retweets came from accounts that Twitter had suspended by March 1. Overall, 10 percent of the retweets that Chinese diplomatic accounts received, and 7 percent of the retweets that state-run media accounts got, were later suspended.

For instance, 34 percent of retweets that the Chinese ambassador to Serbia received in the nine-month period came from suspended accounts. The ambassador tweeted 90 times and received 4,502 retweets.

However, the reports pointed out that only Twitter had the knowledge about why these accounts were suspended.

“PRC diplomats employ images, symbols, and ideas on social media networks to divert the attention of foreign audiences as a means of shaping the policy agendas and broad narratives in foreign countries. The end goal is the creation of a narrative in foreign countries which benefits the PRC,” the reports stated.

In August 2019, Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from China that sought to undermine the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Nearly a year later, in June 2020, Twitter took down about 173,750 accounts linked to Beijing that were involved “in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities,” such as pushing “deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.”

The reports also analyzed carefully two Twitter accounts—those belonging to Liu Xiaoming, the former Chinese ambassador to the UK, and the Chinese Embassy in London. From June 2020 to January 2021, a coordinated network of 62 accounts was dedicated to amplifying messages from the two accounts.

Of the 62 accounts, 60 were eventually suspended by Twitter, with 29 of them being for the reason of platform manipulation. The remaining two were deleted by their users.

“The accounts seemed to generate little additional involvement from genuine users, but may have contributed to the amplification of PRC diplomat content by manipulating platform algorithms,” the reports stated with regard to the 62 accounts.

Studying Beijing’s influence operations on Twitter and Facebook was very important, according to Philip Howard, a professor at the University of Oxford and one of the authors of the reports.

“By uncovering the scale and reach of the PRC’s public diplomacy campaign, we can better understand how policy makers and social media firms should react to an increasingly assertive PRC propaganda strategy,” Howard stated according to the press release.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer