The Chinese government is engaged in a coordinated influence campaign which uses some 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts to spread propaganda and disinformation about the Wuhan coronavirus, a report said.
ProPublica reported on March 26 that it has been tracking the fake accounts since August 2019. At first, the hacked accounts of users from around the world focused on criticizing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. But now they have mainly shifted to China’s response to the coronavirus.
The fake Twitter accounts call on citizens to unite in support of China’s efforts to fight the virus and urges them to “dispel online rumors.”
“With the epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government’s image abroad and shore up its support at home,” the ProPublica report said.
One typical recent tweet in Chinese proclaimed: “We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways.”
Many of the fake Twitter accounts that ProPublica identified appeared to have been automatically generated using a bank of fake profile photos and usernames. But others belonged to real Twitter users at some point, indicating that the accounts had likely been hacked. ProPublica wrote computer programs to document millions of interactions between the 10,000 suspected fake accounts and trace an interrelated network of more than 2,000.
“The true scale of the influence campaign is likely much bigger; our tracking suggests that the accounts we identified comprise only a portion of the operation,” the report said.
ProPublica found a pattern of coordinated activity among the fake accounts that appeared to be aimed at building momentum for particular storylines. Central accounts with more legitimate-looking histories would make eye-catching posts; for example, a political message accompanied by a bold graphic or a meme, or a provocative video. An army of obvious fake accounts would then engage the posts with likes, re-posts and positive comments, presumably to boost their visibility in Twitter’s algorithms.
Those who had their Twitter accounts hacked included a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia, ProPublica reported. Suspected Chinese operatives have stepped up their efforts in recent days, according to private messages shared with ProPublica, offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts.
“These efforts appear to be aimed at disparate audiences outside” of China, the report said. “Most of the posts we found are in Chinese and appear aimed at influencing the millions of ethnic Chinese who live outside of China’s borders. Others are in English. The tweets are seen by few people living in China; the Great Firewall blocks Twitter from the Chinese Internet, though tech-savvy domestic users find workarounds.”
ProPublica’s examination of an interlocking group of accounts within its data linked the propaganda campaign effort to OneSight (Beijing) Technology Ltd., a Beijing-based Internet marketing company.
“OneSight, records show, held a contract to boost the Twitter following of China News Service, the country’s second-largest state-owned news agency,” the ProPublica report said. “The news service operates under the United Front Work Department, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party long responsible for influence operations in foreign countries. OneSight declined to comment and China News Service did not respond to our inquiries.”
On Jan. 29, six days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan, the influence network suddenly shifted its focus from the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations to the coronavirus outbreak, the report said. That same day, OneSight announced a new app that tracked virus-related information. The announcement was accompanied by a graphic declaring that OneSight would “transmit the correct voice of China” to the world.
ProPublica reported it asked Twitter whether it was aware of the continuing activity from Chinese-backed influence accounts.
“We identified some of the fake accounts, and sent a list of questions about the campaign,” the report said. A Twitter spokesperson “declined to respond specifically, instead providing the following statement: ‘Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them. If we identify further information campaigns on our service that we can reliably attribute to state-backed activity either domestic or foreign-led, we will disclose them.’ ”
In August and September, Twitter announced that it had suspended more than 5,000 suspected Chinese state-controlled accounts and released data about them. Twitter also banned around 200,000 related accounts that had been created but were not yet very active.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported on March 26 that a New Mexico resident who had pondered on social media whether the coronavirus could have been present in the United States months before the disease was detected there has described how her tweets were hijacked by China to spread misinformation.
Beatrice, from Albuquerque, posted a series of tweets in which she wondered whether coronavirus could have arrived in the U.S. earlier than believed. In a March 15 tweet, she noted how “sick everyone was” during the Christmas holidays and early January, and recalled people saying how the flu shot didn’t seem to work.
Lijian Zhao, deputy director of China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department, shared Beatrice’s tweets in an apparent attempt to shift the blame for the coronavirus away from China, the Daily Mail’s report said.
Zhao’s resharing of Beatrice’s tweets on March 22 made her posts go viral, and her first tweet has received over 310,000 likes. The sudden attention saw her Twitter account skyrocket from just a few hundred followers to over one thousand.
Lijian Zhao is helping to lead the propaganda campaign to attempt to frame other countries for the global pandemic. In a recent tweet, he said that “it might be U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”
An investigative report conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February decisively concluded that COVID-19 had originated in China. Specifically, at a wildlife market in Wuhan, Hubei province, in November.