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.