TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A horde of fake accounts on Twitter are helping amplify propaganda spread by Chinese diplomats and state media, reaching hundreds of millions of people, according to a new investigation.
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute found that much of the “popular support” for Chinese diplomats on Western social media is actually manufactured. Analysis was possible because Twitter makes more of its data available for researchers compared to other social media platforms.
This manufactured support can boost the status of Chinese diplomats and state media by creating a fake sense of broad support. It can also impact platform algorithms, which are meant to boost the spread of popular posts, increasing the risk of exposing real users to Chinese government propaganda, the report found.
“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,” according to the AP. The AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that retweeted Chinese diplomats or state media close to 200,000 times before getting suspended.
They made up a major share, sometimes more than half, of the total retweets many Chinese diplomatic accounts received on Twitter. The investigation was unable to establish if the accounts were sponsored by the government in Beijing.
According to the report, at least 270 Chinese diplomats in 126 countries are currently active on Twitter and Facebook. When added with Chinese state media, they make up 449 accounts on Twitter and Facebook, posting around 950,000 times between last June and February of this year.
These messages were liked over 350 million times and replied to and shared more than 27 million times, the investigation found. Seventy-five percent of the Chinese diplomats on Twitter joined within the last two years.
Twitter told AP that it is looking into whether the accounts are part of a Chinese state-sponsored information operation. In response to the AP’s report, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance. 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.”