Twitter Gave Chinese Propaganda Its Wings

Spencer Brown, The Chinese Communist Party is known for its strangling effect on the free flow of information for Chinese citizens and lies used to misdirect international questions about its human rights abuses.

As it turns out, Twitter has been something of a partially unwitting co-conspirator in the CCP’s propaganda mission as its platform was taken advantage of by Chinese officials and trolls, according to a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute in conjunction with the Associated Press.

The Twitter propaganda battle plan employed by the Chinese Communist Party is pretty simple. Described by the AP/OII report, “messages set by key state media outlets and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs get picked up by Chinese diplomats around the world, who repackage the content on Twitter, where it is amplified by networks of fake and suspicious accounts working covertly to shape public discourse for the benefit of China’s ruling Communist Party.”

The AP/OII’s months-long investigation “shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”

China’s play to influence the free world with its lies — on a platform CCP censors fearfully ban its own citizens from accessing — is “powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored,” according to the AP/OII report.

“This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.”

Twitter’s terms of service prohibit this kind of manipulation, and the company has taken action to limit some of the Chinese propaganda machine’s accounts on its platform in response to the AP/OII report, but it can’t keep up. The AP/OII report noted that “last year, China’s Communist Party had some 20 million part-time volunteers, many of them students, and 2 million paid commentators at its disposal to steer conversation online.”

“Twitter’s takedowns often came only after weeks or months of activity,” AP/OII found. “All told, AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended… sometimes more than half of the total retweets many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter.”

When it comes to the more legitimate accounts of Chinese diplomats or the CCP-run state media, Twitter has tried to label accounts to warn users. AP/OII, however, found Twitter “had labeled just 14% of Chinese diplomatic accounts on the platform, as of March 1, failing even to flag dozens of verified profiles.”

Twitter told the Associated Press that it is continuing to monitor the CCP’s propaganda campaigns being carried out on its platform and “if we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behavior.”

China, meanwhile, claimed in a statement that they aren’t breaching any Twitter rules, and that “there is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance,” adding “we hope that the relevant parties will abandon their discriminatory attitude, take off their tinted glasses, and take a peaceful, objective, and rational approach in the spirit of openness and inclusiveness.”