Army of Fake Fans Online Boosts China’s Global Messaging | Voice of America
BRUSSELS – The ruling Communist Party in China has opened a new front in its long and ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media.
Liu Xiaoming, who recently resigned his post as Chinese Ambassador to the UK, is one of the party’s most successful infantrymen in this evolving online battlefield. He joined Twitter in October 2019, as many Chinese diplomats invaded Twitter and Facebook, both banned in China.
Since then, Liu has deftly raised his public profile, gaining more than 119,000 subscribers as he morphed into an example of China’s sharp new âwolf warriorâ diplomacy, a term borrowed from a Chinese action. the most profitable. movie.
âIn my opinion, there are so-called ‘wolf warriors’ because there are ‘wolves’ in the world and it takes warriors to fight them,â tweeted in February Liu, who is now the special representative. from China for Korean Peninsula affairs.
His flood of messages – principled and courageous responses to the West’s anti-Chinese prejudices towards its fans, aggressive bombardments towards its detractors – were retweeted more than 43,000 times from June to February alone.
But much of the popular support that Liu and many of his colleagues seem to enjoy on Twitter has, in fact, been fabricated.
A seven-month investigation by The Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department of the University of Oxford, found that China’s rise to Twitter is fueled by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, secretly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions – often without revealing that the content is government sponsored.
More than half of the retweets Liu received from June through January were from accounts Twitter suspended for breaking platform rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than one in ten of the retweets 189 Chinese diplomats received during that timeframe were from accounts Twitter suspended on March 1.
But the Twitter suspensions haven’t stopped the pro-China amplification machine. An additional cluster of fake accounts, many posing as British citizens, continued to promote Chinese government content, racking up more than 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter permanently suspended them for platform manipulation in the end. from last month and at the beginning of the month, in response to the AP and at the beginning of the month. The Oxford Internet Institute survey.
This popularity fiction may bolster the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort the platform’s algorithms, designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While fake individual accounts do not appear to have an impact on their own, over time and on a large scale these networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of Chinese messages.
âYou have a seismic, slow but significant continental shift in the narratives,â said Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology who studies social media. “Lead it a bit over time, it can have a huge impact.”
Twitter and others have already identified inauthentic pro-China networks. But the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has largely boosted engagement in official government accounts and state media, adding to the proof that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion – covertly, if necessary – goes beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Twitter withdrawals often only came after weeks or months of activity. In total, the PA and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before being suspended. They made up a significant portion – sometimes more than half – of the total retweets that many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter.
It could not be determined whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government.
Twitter told AP that many accounts have been sanctioned for manipulation, but declined to provide details of other platform violations. Twitter said it was investigating whether the activity was a state-affiliated information operation.
âWe will continue to investigate and act on accounts that violate our platform manipulation policy, including accounts associated with these networks,â a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. âIf we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behavior. When our investigations are complete, we release all accounts and the contents of our public records. â
China’s Foreign Ministry has said it does not employ social media deception. “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor to export a model of guiding public opinion online,” the ministry said in a statement to the PA. “We hope that the parties concerned will abandon their discriminatory attitude, remove their tinted glasses and adopt a peaceful, objective and rational approach in a spirit of openness and inclusion.”