China’s Propaganda Ops on COVID-19, Hong Kong Purged by Twitter

Over 23,000 accounts and nearly 350,000 tweets have been permanently removed. 

5 min read
Over 23,000 accounts and nearly 350,000 tweets have been permanently removed by Twitter.

(The story has been updated at Saturday 8AM with China’s response)

In a sweeping move, Twitter announced on Friday, 12 June it has permanently removed 23,750 accounts and nearly 350,000 tweets linked to an elaborate “information operation” by the Chinese state.

The microblogging site specified that these accounts were suspended “for various violations of our platform manipulation policies.”

In a detailed report, Twitter revealed that “this entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities” on geopolitical narratives about China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as well as Taiwan and Chinese dissidents.

Apart from the 23,750 core accounts, this highly-engaged network also comprised over 150,000 accounts that were designed to act as amplifiers and boost this content.

According to Twitter, a defining characteristic of the network was pushing narratives “favourable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.”

The site also removed another 8,592 accounts related to similar state-linked operations by Russia and Turkey.

‘Biggest Victim of Disinformation’: China Responds

Responding to the takedown, China on Friday said Twitter should shut down accounts that smear China if it wants to fight disinformation, arguing that the country is the biggest victim of disinformation.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters during a briefing that many platforms had much falsehood about China and that there was a need for Chinese voices with objective views, reported Reuters.

China’s Massive Tweet Operation

Twitter worked alongside research partners Stanford Internet Observatory and Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) to extract detailed insights into the nature of the Chinese state-backed operations.

On 3 June, 2020 Twitter shared with the Stanford Internet Observatory three distinct takedown datasets from China, Turkey and Russia. Stanford’s deep dive into the large datasets have revealed a robust strategy to amplify pro-China narratives about COVID-19, its handling of the pandemic as well as attacking other countries over their strategies.

In a detailed study of the China-related datasets, Stanford published a white paper titled, “Sockpuppets Spin COVID Yarns: An Analysis of PRC-Attributed June 2020 Twitter Takedown”. The report states:

Narratives around COVID-19 primarily praise China’s response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China’s response against that of the US government or Taiwan’s response, or use the presence of the virus as a wayto attack Hong Kong activists.
Stanford Internet Observatory

According to the paper, Tweets were topically divided among four main groups:

  • The Hong Kong protests;
  • COVID-19;
  • the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui;
  • Taiwan

The Chinese information operation began in July 2019 and can be divided into two phases:

  • Phase 1 (July to December 2019): The focus was primarily on Hong Kong, Guo and a smaller portion on Taiwan
  • Phase 2: (January to June 2020): Tweets split between Hong Kong and COVID-19

ASPI also conducted a detailed study, publishing a report titled “Retweeting Through The Great Firewall,” wherein it observes that the operation was largely targeted Chinese-speaking audiences outside of the Chinese mainland.” This explains how and why Twitter was chosen given it is blocked in Chinese mainland.

Topic distribution over time in the Twitter dataset
Topic distribution over time in the Twitter dataset
(Image via Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
“Analysing the dataset as a whole, we found that the posting patterns of tweets mapped cleanly to working hours at Beijing time (despite the fact that Twitter is blocked in mainland China),” ASPI’s study observed.

“Posts spiked through 8 am–5 pm working hours Monday to Friday and dropped off at weekends. Such a regimented posting pattern clearly suggests coordination and inauthenticity,” the paper added.

Stanford’s study goes on to state that the COVID-19 related content includes “tweets cheerleading for the Chinese government, emphasising Chinese unity, calling for global unity, and praising doctors and medical workers.”

It also pointedly criticises the US epidemic response, quibbles over the international perception that Taiwan’s response was superior to China’s and attacks Guo Wengui, a billionaire dissident now based in the US, for allegedly spreading false news on the coronavirus and “discrediting China”.

COVID Mission Ramped Up In January

China’s pivot towards managing the social media narrative on coronavirus and China’s handling of it has been described as the second phase of the state-linked deceptive operations.

Tweet activity around COVID-19 ramped up in late January 2020 and spiked in late March.

Stanford notes that 32, 392 tweets mentioning coronavirus-related terms (9 percent of all tweets in the operation) can be divided into four narrative paths.

  • Cheering on the Chinese government epidemic response
  • Calling for Chinese and global unity
  • Painting China as a responsible stakeholder in the international environment
  • Praising Hong Kong’s epidemic response while criticizing its activists
China’s Propaganda Ops on COVID-19, Hong Kong Purged by Twitter
(Image via Stanford Internet Observatory)
“From mid-March, as the outbreak evolved into a global pandemic, the number of coronavirus-related tweets significantly increased,” the paper observes.

An interesting observation pertains to the accounts themselves. 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 paper added.

How The COVID Narrative Evolved

A study of the month-on-month content from January to April reveals a shifting focus commensurate with coronavirus related developments globally.

January: Tweets attacked Guo Wengui, Hong Kong activists, and pan-democracy district councillors for allegedly spreading rumors about the severity of the outbreak and using the epidemic as “panic bullets.”

February: After the WHO declared it a global health emergency on 30 January, “the narrative shifted from downplaying the outbreak to praising the Chinese government pandemic response ,” Stanford’s paper states.

March: As the epidemic center shifted to Europe and reported COVID-19 cases in China fell rapidly, the narrative changed again “to praising China’s success in combating the epidemic and that China had demonstrated it was a ‘responsible big country.’”

April: As reported cases in the United States surged rapidly, the criticism shifted to the Trump Administration’s response and called on the White House to learn from China’s successes and “put aside political bias.”

Twitter’s Platform Manipulation Policy

While Twitter officially stated that the accounts and tweets were removed for violations of platform manipulation policies, it does not specify which policy the accounts had fallen foul of.

However, the site’s platform manipulation policies states that a user “may not use Twitter’s services in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.”

Among the primary type of prohibited behaviour is coordinated activity that attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and/or scripting. Chinese state-linked activity appears to have carried out an operation very similar to this prohibited behaviour.

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