Twitter has announced that they have deleted 170,000 profiles that were tied to an operation used to spread propaganda concerning Hong Kong and coronavirus.
The accounts, which were all linked to a Beijing-backed influence campaign, were pushing messages that were encouraging positive views of the way the Chinese government had responded to the virus as well as posting ‘deceptive narratives’ about the country’s politics.
Alongside this, Twitter has also suspended 23,750 of what they call ‘highly active’ accounts as well as 150,000 ‘amplifier’ accounts that have been used to increase the content from the main accounts.
It is believed that some of the profiles that were being used were either inactive or old and had been stolen, hacked or bought in a bid to promote the ‘false news’.
China has banned many American social media companies with Instagram and Facebook being blocked as well as Twitter and it is believed the current campaign was an attempt to persuade the outlook of Chinese-speaking users on important issues.
It was also discovered that the network running the campaign had connections to Guo Wengui, the exiled Chinese billionaire, and was full of fake accounts that had low engagement rates.
Twitter has also discovered two other operations that were connected to Turkey and Russia and although smaller than the Chinese campaign, these were focused on home audiences.
Making the announcement online, Twitter said, ‘every account and piece of content associated with these operations has been permanently removed from the service. Ultimately our goal is to serve the public conversation, remove bad faith actors, and to advance public understanding of these critical topics.’
They continued to confirm that the 23,750 Chinese accounts were stopped before they had had time to generate a large following or engagement.
This was backed up by the news that the majority of the amplifier accounts not only had minimal traction but also limited follower accounts while some had no followers at all. It was also believed that the accounts were specifically opened to ‘artificially inflate impression metrics and engage with the core accounts.’
And although most of the accounts were posted in Chinese languages, it was clear that they were pushing a positive look at China’s governing party, the Communist Party of China (CCP). They were also attempting to promote ‘deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong’, specifically the recent controversy over the new extradition laws that have been imposed on the area.
Twitter also confirmed that activity had increased on the profiles after coronavirus had spread from China to the rest of the world, with March seeing higher numbers of activity. The profiles continued to mount praise on the way in which China had responded to covid-19 as well as attempt to cause issues with activists in both Hong Kong and the US.
Twitter is laying full blame for the campaign with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who had already been held responsible for around 200,000 other accounts that Twitter had suspended in 2019.
It has also been claimed that China is attempting to convince people that the American government’s response to recent protests – including those surrounding the death of George Floyd in May – is akin to the suppression of the protestors in Hong Kong.
Many of the accounts had been created at the beginning of the year however some had been active since last fall, with the owners waiting until this spring before they started posting.
Twitter has been working with two research partners, including the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), both of whom have been made aware of the outcome of the report and subsequently have published their own findings.
‘This large-scale pivot to Western platforms is relatively new, and we should expect continued evolution and improvement, given the enormous resourcing the Chinese party-state can bring to bear in aligning state messaging across its diplomacy, state media and covert influence operations,’ ASPI said.
The Chinese network had seen an earlier operation broken up by Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in 2019 after it was discovered they too had been promoting fake articles about Hong Kong’s politics.
It was also discovered that the campaign had been promoting false messages not only about Hong Kong but also about how the world was reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan as well as Guo Wengui.
A further network with connections with Russia has also been deleted. Twitter confirmed the move stating that 1,152 accounts had to be closed due to ‘amplifying content in an inauthentic, coordinated manner for political ends.’
While the posts were predominantly anti-Western and anti-opposition, the majority were promoting the Kremlin in a positive light and included accounts asking ‘leading questions’ that were pushing followers to provide pro-government replies.
In an attempt to stop future operations Twitter are planning an online conference this summer where industry, government and leading experts can work together to stop such networks being created again.