Twitter tore down 23,750 accounts it linked to an operation of the Chinese government to boost the communist country’s public perception, including its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s influence operation on Twitter focused on the coronavirus, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, according to data shared with Stanford University from Twitter that was published last week.
The nearly 24,000 accounts operating at China’s behest tweeted more than 348,000 times, but most of the accounts had fewer than 10 followers, no biographies listed in their profiles and served to amplify the narrative of a core group.
“The COVID-19-related content includes tweets cheerleading for the Chinese government, emphasizing Chinese unity, calling for global unity, and praising doctors and medical workers,” wrote the Stanford Internet Observatory in a white paper on the Chinese dataset. “It also pointedly criticizes the U.S. epidemic response, quibbles over the international perception that Taiwan’s response was superior to China’s, and attacks Guo Wengui for allegedly spreading false news on the coronavirus and ‘discrediting China.’”
According to Stanford’s breakdown, 47.1% of the tweets were categorized as focusing on the coronavirus, Hong Kong and coronavirus and Hong Kong. The remaining tweets targeted Mr. Guo, Mr. Guo and Hong Kong, and other issues.
A majority of the Chinese accounts were created after October 2019, and the Chinese users downplayed the coronavirus and decried people spreading “panic bullets” about the epidemic until early February 2020. Then, in March 2020, as the coronavirus outbreak took root worldwide, the number of coronavirus-related tweets spiked, and the accounts shifted their narrative to praising China.
The segment of the Chinese influence operation aimed at English-reading Twitter users included amplifying state-run news media from China and Iran.
“For Western audiences, English-language tweets in March primarily reported news related to the outbreak,” wrote the Stanford Internet Observatory. “Some of the English-language tweets were retweets from prominent state media accounts @ChinaDaily, @globaltimesnews, and @PressTV (Iran), as well as retweets of Chinese officials such as @Amb_ChenXu and foreign ministry account @SpokespersonCHN.”
Chinese ambassador to the United Nations Chen Xu’s Twitter account is @Amb_ChenXu and the @SpokespersonCHN account of China’s foreign ministry belongs to spokesperson Hua Chunying.
Alongside the Chinese influence operation, Twitter data shared with Stanford showed Russian and Turkish influence operations on the platform as well. Both the Russia and Turkey operations involved far fewer Twitter users but they produced many more tweets.
Twitter shuttered 1,152 Russian accounts that tweeted more than 3.4 million times and shutdown 7,340 Turkish accounts that tweeted more than 36.9 million times.