Beijing is amping up its influence campaigns on Western social media platforms as part of an ongoing endeavor to promote pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views on a global scale.
While Russian disinformation efforts on Facebook and Twitter have drawn the lion’s share of media attention since their bid to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, analysts say that the Chinese regime has since that time been playing catch-up, expanding and developing influence operations on these platforms—which are banned inside China.
The Chinese regime’s initiatives went into turbocharge at the onset of the pandemic, with an aggressive global disinformation and propaganda campaign to deflect blame over its mishandling of the outbreak and amplify narratives praising its response efforts. Recently, it has exploited the nationwide unrest following the police custody death of George Floyd to undermine the credibility of the United States and democratic governance.
Earlier this month, Twitter announced that it had taken down more than 170,000 accounts linked to the Chinese regime that pushed its narratives surrounding the pandemic, the Hong Kong protests, and other topics.
The company said it has identified and removed 23,750 core accounts, and around 150,000 “amplifier” accounts which were designed to boost the core network by retweeting and liking their posts.
The removal builds upon the company’s action last August when it scrubbed hundreds of Beijing-linked accounts that sought to undermine the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Facebook and YouTube took similar action.
Despite Chinese campaigns lacking the sophistication of Russian operations, analysts believe the gap will close as a result of the regime’s persistent and aggressive actions in this space.
Andrew Selepak, social media professor at the University of Florida, said that while Beijing may have more accounts peddling pro-CCP narratives, it is not as effective as the Russians at generating impact from individual accounts. “But that’s something that’s going to change pretty quickly,” he told The Epoch Times.
Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in their analysis of the core Twitter accounts targeted in the recent takedown, found that most had underdeveloped personas—78.5 percent had no followers at all.
The accounts sent out 348,608 tweets between January 2018 and April 2020. Most were in Chinese, with the campaign primarily targeted at Hong Kong residents and the Chinese-speaking diaspora, researchers said.
Amal Sinha, an independent data analyst who reviewed the dataset, deducted that the operation was likely run out of a human troll factory in China—rather than by bots—due to the accounts’ tweeting behavior: they were tweeting during work hours at Beijing time, there was significant variations in time between tweets, and almost all were exclusively tweeted from a desktop computer.
Beijing is likely using human operatives, Sinha said, because bots tend to be easier for software to catch.
The Chinese regime employs an extensive network of internet trolls to censor online discussion, praise Chinese Communist Party policies, and demonize viewpoints critical of the regime. They have been dubbed the “50-cent army” because they are reportedly paid 50 cents by Chinese authorities for each online post made.
ASPI also found that the Twitter operation used aged accounts—potentially purchased from the influence-for-hire marketplace, hacked or stolen—to try and gain traction in larger networks.
ProPublica, a New York-based nonprofit media, in March similarly found a network of 10,000 inauthentic Twitter accounts spreading Chinese propaganda and disinformation that contained hijacked accounts, which may have been obtained by hacking or purchasing.
The media outlet found that the accounts were linked to OneSight (Beijing) Technology, a Beijing-based internet marketing company with connections to the Chinese regime. The company’s CEO previously worked at the Beijing city foreign propaganda department.
Last year, ProPublica obtained a copy of a contract won by OneSight to boost the Twitter following of state-owned news agency China News Service. The outlet is run under the United Front Work Department, a Party organ dedicated to running Beijing’s influence operations inside and outside of China.
Selepak, the social media professor, said Beijing is also likely seeking to pay influential users to promote particular messages on Twitter—to make use of their outsized voices on these platforms.
ProPublica referred to the case of Badiucao, a Chinese dissident cartoonist living in Australia, who said he was approached by an account claiming to be an “international exchange company.” The firm offered the cartoonist 1,700 yuan (about $240) to tweet out specific content per post.
During feigned negotiations with the company, Badiucao said he received a sample of what he would be asked to tweet out: a 15-second propaganda clip, showing that Beijing “defeated the coronavirus and everything is back on track.”
Badiucao said he was confident the company was working for the Chinese regime, based on their interactions. The company did not move forward with the negotiations after a review of Badiucao’s posts.
Tech analyses of the recently shuttered Twitter accounts showed that up until early February, they focused on criticizing protesters in Hong Kong; demonizing Chinese billionaire fugitive Guo Wengui, who is based in Manhattan and an outspoken critic of the CCP; and promoting the idea that Taiwan is part of China.
But as the outbreak in China worsened in late January, the narrative shifted. Accounts started cheerleading Beijing’s response to the outbreak, criticizing U.S. containment efforts, and countering claims that Taiwan’s response was superior to China’s, according to an analysis by the Stanford Internet Observatory published in June.
The accounts also retweeted posts from Chinese state media and officials about the pandemic.
Chinese diplomats have in recent months aggressively taken to Twitter to promote the regime as an exemplar in global efforts to contain the disease, and push unfounded claims that the virus did not originate from China. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian notoriously suggested in March that the virus was brought into Wuhan by the U.S. army. In late May, Twitter added a fact check label to his tweet, which links to a series of Western media sources about the origin of the virus.
Meanwhile, Chinese state-run outlets also took to social media, promoting the hashtags “Trumpandemic” and “TrumpVirus” on its posts.
In early May, separate from the company’s own investigation, the U.S. state department discovered a vast Chinese-linked campaign on Twitter aimed at spreading narratives favorable to the regime amid the pandemic.
The department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) found that Chinese diplomats’ Twitter accounts saw a surge in new followers around March. Many of these followers were newly-made accounts, suggesting they belonged to an artificial network designed to amplify narratives from Chinese officials, GEC head Lea Gabrielle said at the time.
In one case, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry shared a video that claimed the Chinese national anthem was played in the streets when Chinese doctors arrived in Italy—which was later debunked as fake, Gabrielle said. The video appeared to show Italians saying, “Thank you, China,” when, in fact, they were thanking their own health care workers. This video was shared widely by Chinese diplomats and state-run media, which were then amplified by Russian-linked accounts, she added.
The campaign has recently evolved to exploit the race-related unrest across the United States, ASPI found. Posts on Twitter and Facebook used the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and U.S. authorities’ response to protests to promote anti-U.S., anti-democracy, anti-protest, and pro-Hong Kong police messages, it stated.
One account, for instance, tweeted an image of Lady Liberty leaning on Floyd’s neck, and compared U.S. authorities’ handling of the protests with Beijing’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, accusing the United States of hypocrisy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has derided Beijing’s propaganda surrounding the protests as “laughable,” pointing to the communist regime’s systemic crackdown on freedom of speech, press, and religion.
ASPI said the Chinese regime’s persistent online experimentation will allow it to “recalibrate efforts to influence audiences on Western platforms with growing precision.”
“This large-scale pivot to Western platforms is relatively new, and we should expect continued evolution and improvement,” it said.
The Epoch Times reached out to Twitter and Facebook over its efforts to counter Chinese disinformation but didn’t receive a response as of press time.
Mark Grabowski, associate professor specializing in cyber law and digital ethics at Adelphi University, describes the regime’s disinformation campaign as a “far more menacing threat” than Russia’s.
He pointed to the hugely popular video app TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance. The app, which had 37.2 million users in the United States in 2019, has seen a surge in popularity during the pandemic.
“By analyzing its treasure trove of data, China can gain all kinds of insights and leverage it to manipulate Americans,” Grabowski said.
“With so many Americans practically living online now, especially during the lockdown, China understands American society very well and they know what buttons to push,” he added.
U.S. officials and experts have raised concerns that data collected by the Chinese app could be transferred to Beijing due to Chinese laws that compel companies to work with authorities in intelligence collection efforts. TikTok has denied these claims, saying U.S. users’ data is stored in the country. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is reportedly reviewing ByteDance’s 2018 acquisition of Musical.ly, a U.S. music video app that was the precursor to TikTok, for national security risks.
TikTok has sweeping powers to influence its users, Grabowski noted. It can “suppress videos that are critical of China, and amplify any narrative or talking point or meme by artificially inflating shares or tinkering with their algorithm,” he said.
The Epoch Times recently reported that TikTok deleted the account of a Chinese international student in the United States after he posted a video mocking the Chinese national anthem.
Grabowski said the regime could also exploit the anti-government sentiment held by many American academics, journalists, and lawmakers to propel anti-U.S. narratives. For instance, they could find an influential user with a blue checkmark who tweets that the coronavirus should be called the “Trumpvirus,” and amplify their views.
“They provide the appearance of credibility and China simply provides the retweets and makes that narrative go viral,” he said.