The Chinese Communist Party has opened a new front in its battle to manipulate world public opinion: It seeks to take advantage of Western social networks.
Liu Xiaoming, who recently stopped serving as a Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, is one of the main drivers of this campaign. He joined Twitter in October 2019, along with a number of Chinese diplomats who logged into that platform and Facebook despite the fact that they are banned in China.
Liu has since brilliantly raised his profile, reaching 119,000 followers and becoming an example of aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy,” a term popularized in the hit Chinese action movie.
“From my point of view, there are so-called” warrior wolves “because there are” wolves “in the world and you need warriors to fight them, Liu, who is currently the Chinese special representative for Korean peninsula affairs, said in a tweet in February.
His posts – bold responses to the West’s anti-China biases along with strong criticism of his critics – were retweeted 43,000 times from June to February.
But much of Liu and other Chinese leaders’ popularity on Twitter appears illusory.
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute of the University of Oxford showed that China’s growing presence on Twitter was made possible thanks to a number of fake accounts that retweeted Chinese diplomats and media comments by the thousands. Sometimes a advertising campaign can reach hundreds of millions of people, often without revealing that its content is sponsored by the government.
More than half of Liu’s tweets between June and January came from accounts that Twitter suspended for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than one in 10 retweets of 189 Chinese diplomats in that period came from accounts that Twitter had suspended as of March 1.
However, the account suspension did not paralyze the Prochina amplification mechanism. A number of additional fake accounts, many of which are presumed British citizens, continued to reproduce Chinese government content, adding 16,000 retweets and other responses before Twitter permanently suspended them in late April and early May for tampering with the platform, in response to the Associated Press and Oxford question.
This phantom popularity can improve the image of Chinese messengers, creating a feeling that they have broad support. It can also distort the algorithms of the platform, leading to the distribution of the most popular posts, which could expose more real users of Chinese propaganda. While the fake individual accounts don’t have much of an impact, taken together and over time they can change the informational environment, expanding the reach and credibility of Chinese messages.
“There is a slow but big seismic continental shift in the narratives,” said Timothy Graham, a professor at Queensland University of Technology who studies social media. “After a while it can have a big impact.”
Twitter and others have identified fake pro-China networks in the past. But an investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute reveals for the first time that an official campaign to expand the reach of the message has boosted the accounts of the Chinese government and press, providing new evidence of Beijing’s desire to secretly manipulate public opinion if necessary, and override its limits and accounts. Primary strategic interests, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Anti-counterfeiting accounts generally come after they have been inactive for weeks, if not months. The Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that had retweeted posts by Chinese diplomats or the media nearly 200,000 times before being suspended.
It was not possible to determine whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government.
Twitter told the AP that several accounts have been sanctioned for tampering, but it did not clarify what other violations of the platform might be at stake. Twitter said it was investigating whether the activity was linked to a state media operation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it is not manipulating social media. “There is no convincing propaganda, nor an export of a model for managing public opinion on the networks,” the ministry said in a statement sent to the Associated Press. “We hope that the parties concerned will give up their discriminatory stance, take off their polarized glasses and take a peaceful, objective and rational stance for the sake of transparency and inclusiveness.”
Associated Press detective Chen Si from Shanghai contributed.
Follow Erika Kinetz on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ekinetz
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