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Twitter Removes Thousands of Accounts Linked to China Influence Campaign

The social media platform Twitter has removed 170,000 accounts linking to China, that engage with various manipulative and coordinated activities. The range of accounts have shared false information on Coronavirus, Hong Kong protests and George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

Twitter has announced the removal of these accounts in a blog post where they confirm the state linked information has been permanently removed. It is believed at the core of the network was around 23,750 accounts that were highly engaged with the misinformation. From this 150,000 accounts were used as amplifiers to share the information to as many people as possible. The accounts have been linked to an influence campaign from the People’s Republic. As Twitter’s blog post explains “They were tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favorable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong”. Hong Kong is an area that is suffering from ongoing protests over the disagreement of some citizens in the enforcement of a new national security law.

As well as this, Twitter has shut down more than a thousand Russian based accounts spreading false information. A total of 1,152 accounts have been suspended after Twitter announced the accounts were “engaging in state backed political propaganda within Russia”. As the Twitter blog post explains, the activity from these accounts included “promoting the United Russia party and attacking political dissidents,”. Moreover, Twitter has recently suspended 7,340 accounts that have been promoting Turkey’s AK party and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has identified that even though Twitter as a platform is blocked in China, the influence campaign was attempting to target Chinese speaking individuals living outside of the country. As the Guardian reports the campaign focused on a variety of different topics “with the intention of influencing perceptions on key issues, including the Hong Kong protests, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and, to a lesser extent, Covid-19 and Taiwan”. The researchers from ASPI analysed the content produced from the accounts, a total of 348,608 tweets and concluded that most tweets were posted in business hours on weekdays. They identified that the tweets posted were of a majority written in Chinese language and the attempted target of the campaign were citizens in Hong Kong. The majority of the accounts sharing the campaign had 0 followers however more than 156 tweets from these accounts received over 50 likes. It can be suggested the founders of the campaign bought or hacked legitimate accounts to make the influence campaign appear more realistic.

The Stanford Internet Observatory divided the tweets created into different topics including Hong Kong Protests highlighting violence, praising China’s response to COVID19, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and Taiwan election. Stanford Internet Observatory analysed the content created to show that the COVID19 tweets were “ramped up in late January 2020 and spiked in late March,” they continued to add “The majority of accounts were created mere weeks before they began tweeting in late January; however, some were created as early as September 2019, remaining dormant until they began tweeting about COVID-19 in March.” The researchers explained “Narratives around COVID-19 primarily praise China’s response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China’s response against that of the U.S. government or Taiwan’s response, or use the presence of the virus as a means to attack Hong Kong activists”.

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The protests in Hong Kong have become quieter earlier this year due to the outbreak of COVID19 however the agreement made to enact the new national security law for Hong Kong by China’s ceremonial parliament sparked the need for protest once again. The law has been seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s freedom that was agreed once handed over to China in 1997.

In relation to China’s method of combating COVID19 Fox News reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying explains her opinion “It is generally understood that disinformation should be false, untrue, or even maliciously fabricated lies and rumors. “However, China’s efforts to combat COVID-19 and the results it achieved are real and witnessed by all,” as she cited a document named “Fighting COVID-19: China in Action” that was issued by the Information Office of China’s State Council.

In the future the social media platform has announced that it would provide an archive of impression counts and additional relevant information that could help researchers understand the impact of these negative campaigns. It is currently trialling a “read before retweet” strategy that is aimed to help users to make informed discussions on the platform. The message is going to appear on articles that users share but haven’t opened the link yet.

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