China’s Communist Party and government are stepping up the use of Twitter to spread disinformation that Wuhan was not the origin of the coronavirus outbreak and that China is helping the world recover, the State Department said.
The department’s Global Engagement Center, the unit charged with countering foreign propaganda and disinformation, recently discovered a cluster of what it called “inauthentic” Twitter accounts used to support Chinese diplomats and embassies spread disinformation.
“The GEC has uncovered a new network of inauthentic Twitter accounts which we assess were created with the intent to amplify Chinese propaganda and disinformation,” said Lea Gabrielle, director of the center.
“It’s our assessment that this network could be deployed to allow the [Chinese Communist Party] to rapidly amplify and spread messages around the world, skewing the conversation to its benefit,” Ms. Gabrielle said.
China has been pushing a narrative that the virus did not originate in Wuhan but was by the U.S., Europe or some other part of the world.
Beijing also has asserted that Chinese officials properly responded to the disease outbreak, amid criticism from U.S. leaders that Beijing initially covered up the outbreak and its rapid infectiousness.
Analysts say one reason Beijing has been seeking to obscure the origin of the outbreak is to undercut lawsuits from foreign countries who say they will seek damages from China for the pandemic and its consequences.
In one instance, the Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a tweet of a video claiming the national anthem was played as doctors arrived in Italy to help fight the health crisis. The video actually showed the Italians were not saying “Thank you, China” but thanking their own health care workers.
“PRC diplomats and party state media changed the context of the video in Beijing’s favor and then shared it widely,” Ms. Gabrielle said.
Chinese diplomats have been far more aggressive online in recent months, setting up 40 new Twitter accounts between September and December 2019 — equal to the total number of account by the entire diplomatic corps as of April of last year.
Along with the diplomatic accounts, Chinese state-controlled new organs are increasingly using bot networks to amplify propaganda and disinformation spread by some 36 Twitter accounts linked to Chinese diplomats, the foreign ministry and official embassy accounts.
Ms. Gabrielle argued the coordinated propaganda push threatens to undermine legitimate discourse on Twitter, a popular social media platform that boasts 330 million users. The GEC’s findings had been shared with Twitter executives, she added.
A Twitter spokeswoman said rules for the social media platform rules do not ban Chinese official postings.
“Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter rules,” the spokeswoman said.
But Ms. Gabrielle said China’s online efforts still pose a threat.
“So from promoting conspiracy websites to the use of trolls and bot networks to pushing false narratives couched in science on Chinese state media, Beijing has engaged in an aggressive information campaign to try and reshape the global narrative around [the coronavirus pandemic],” Ms. Gabrielle said. “It’s doing this in an attempt to make the world see China as the global leader in the response rather than the source of the pandemic.”
The ‘50 Cent Army’
Beijing uses social media backed by bot networks — automated or human social media trolls — “to push its narratives on social media platforms, those social media platforms that open and free societies use to communicate and to learn what’s happening in the world but that are blocked in China,” Ms. Gabrielle told reporters.
China is known to operate an extensive army of propaganda trolls estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Operating on both Chinese and U.S. social media, they are known as the “50 Cent Army” — said to be paid 50 cents for each post.
The use of bot networks by China has increased more than 250% since pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in March 2019.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, China has stepped up its propaganda campaign. Beginning in March, newly created Twitter followers of the Chinese official accounts increased from about 30 per day to over 720 per day.
“That’s a 22-fold increase, and many of these new followers were newly created accounts,” Ms. Gabrielle said.
“So both the sudden increase of followers and the very recent creation of many of these accounts point to an artificial network being established to follow and to amplify narratives from Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials, especially at a time when China’s adopting Russian-style disinformation techniques to sow confusion and to try to convince people that COVID didn’t originate in China.”
The trends has escalated since March, U.S. officials say, and the links between the bot network and the ruling Communist Party are “highly probable,” Mr. Gabrielle contended.
“We also assess that this is a coordinated and interconnected effort,” she said. “Nearly every diplomatic account shares at least one follower with every other account, with some instances of diplomatic accounts sharing more than a thousand followers.”
Ms. Gabrielle also repeated earlier warnings that Chinese propaganda organs in recent months have begun adopting Soviet-style disinformation techniques. Many of these propaganda postings by China are then picked up and echoed by Russian social media propaganda outlets.
The Twitter spokeswoman said the messaging service “will continue its zero-tolerance approach to platform manipulation and any other attempts to undermine the integrity of our service. When we identify information operation campaigns that we can reliably attribute to state-backed activity — either domestic or foreign-led — we disclose them to the public.”
Twitter in August 2019 uncovered a “significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.”
Ms. Gabrielle said the Chinese propaganda appears to have backfired, as many foreign governments, academics and media have exposed Beijing’s disinformation efforts and have supported U.S. government calls for China to be more open.