Twitter has confirmed that tens of thousands of accounts operated on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party have been targeting the Chinese diaspora with propaganda.
More than 23,000 accounts were identified at the core of the propaganda network, with another 150,000 accounts used to amplify their tweets, the company announced.
Twitter is now adding the tweets from the 23,750 accounts to its information operation archive, which the social media site established following the Russian state’s attempt to abuse the platform to manipulate the US elections in 2016.
According to the company, the campaign had been run since early 2017 attempting to expand the influence of the Chinese Communist Party abroad using a network “involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities”.
The network was uncovered by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which said the propaganda was primarily focused on undermining support for the Hong Kong protesters last September.
Also regularly mentioned was the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, and to a lesser extent the coronavirus pandemic and the independent state of Taiwan, which China claims sovereignty over.
These topics are seen as priorities for the Chinese Communist Party according to ASPI, which said they provide “insight into how China’s party-state views external threats to its political power”.
The accounts were also used to “weaponise the US government’s response to domestic protest and civil unrest in order to create the perception of moral equivalence with the suppression of protest in Hong Kong” the government funded think-tank warned.
“While the Chinese Communist Party won’t allow the Chinese people to use Twitter, our analysis shows it is happy to use it to sow propaganda and disinformation internationally,” said ASPI’s Fergus Hanson.
“Persistent, covert and deceptive influence operations like this one demonstrate the extent to which the party-state will target external threats to its political power.
“Twitter’s initiative in making these datasets available for scrutiny is a powerful step in pushing back against this corrosion of the information environment,” added Mr Hanson who directs ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
The accounts, which have now all been suspended, tweeted 348,608 times according to Twitter, although few had many followers.
Twitter attributed the campaign to the Chinese Communist Party which has ruled China country for more than 70 years, and was behind another 200,000 accounts which the company suspended last August.
The new network’s activity around COVID-19 began to build up in late January and spiked in late March, Twitter said.
False accounts spread narratives which praised China’s response to the outbreak while also using it to antagonise the US and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Twitter is also adding another 1,152 accounts which have been tied to state-backed political propaganda within Russia to its archive, as well as 7,340 accounts doing the same for President Erdogan in Turkey.
Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory welcomed Twitter making this information public – something which no other social media platform does.
“Twitter’s transparency around takedowns, and their methods for ensuring access to data for researchers, offer a model for other companies to follow.
“Collaborative research provides us with a way to learn from past operations and mitigate future malign efforts,” Ms DiResta said.