TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — China has been spreading propaganda on social media platforms outside the Great Firewall, and now private enterprises are helping the regime to expand its online influence.
Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long since blocked access within its borders to mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it nevertheless embraces the power of these platforms and operates aggressively on them.
According to a report published by ProPublica, an American nonprofit that specializes in investigative journalism, the CCP is teaming up with private companies to spread its propaganda through hijacking Twitter accounts or creating fake ones. The victims of these operations include individuals as well as news agencies, such as Radio Free Asia.
Going through the Twitter threads of the hijacked accounts, it is obvious that they are obsessed with specific topics and rely on the same tiny bundle of ideas. After a college student at the University of Nebraska, Kalen Keegan, had her account hacked, her Twitter wall teemed with pro-Hong Kong police narratives in Chinese, which were followed by changes to her user name, photo, and description — the birth of another zombie account.
Different zombie accounts have different missions. Some keep their focus on labeling the Hong Kong protests as subversion, while others are busy attacking CCP rivals. The same Chinese propaganda videos or images will be shared by multiple hijacked accounts, despite their awkward appearance on the threads, which were formerly in English.
The report linked these malicious activities to OneSight Technology Ltd., a Beijing-based internet marketing company, which holds an RMB$1.25 million (US$176,354) contract with the Chinese government to boost the Twitter followers of its state-run mouthpiece, China News Service. The company bills itself as the top Chinese company providing social media marketing abroad, and it uses a tool that allows different Twitter handles to share the same post simultaneously.
Yang Jianli (楊建利), founder of human rights non-profit Citizen Power Initiatives for China, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that many Chinese tech companies are eager to work with the government. "The CCP uses private enterprise to grow its overseas influence, and these companies can rack up profits under the privileges given by the regime."
RFA has also been a victim of CCP propaganda campaigns; Twitter accounts like Radio Free Dong Bei, Radio Free Xuzhou, and Radio Free Anhui have recently emerged with profile photos impersonating the authentic RFA. Most of the content from Radio Free Dong Bei, for example, touts the achievements China has made in containing the Wuhan coronavirus.
Keyword searches on Twitter show the vilification of CCP opponents.