Twitter has removed more than 170,000 accounts tied to a Beijing-backed influence operation that spread messages favourable to the Chinese government, including about the coronavirus.
The company said on Friday that it suspended a core network of 23,750 highly active accounts, as well as a larger network of about 150,000 “amplifier” accounts used to boost the core accounts’ content.
Twitter, along with researchers who analysed the accounts, said the network was largely an echo chamber of fake accounts that spread “geopolitical narratives favourable” to the Communist Party, focusing on “deceptive narratives” about Hong Kong, the coronavirus pandemic, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and Taiwan.
However, the accounts “failed to achieve considerable traction,” typically holding low follower accounts and low engagement, Twitter said in a statement.
Twitter, along with other US social media companies such as Facebook and Instagram, is blocked in China.
Twitter said the Chinese network had links to an earlier state-backed operation dismantled last year by Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube that had been pushing misleading narratives about political dynamics in Hong Kong.
Renee DiResta, at the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), said the network’s coronavirus activity ramped up in late January, as the outbreak spread beyond China, and spiked in March.
🚨🧵 Today Twitter announced a takedown of a network of 23,750 accounts attributed to the PRC 🇨🇳, with technical indicators linking the operation to the network suspended in August 2019. SIO participated in the analysis. Report: https://t.co/2zQCbeHIjz
— Renee DiResta (@noUpside) June 11, 2020
“Narratives around COVID-19 primarily praise China’s response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China’s response against that of the US government or Taiwan’s response, or use the presence of the virus as a means to attack Hong Kong activists,” the SIO said in a report. “The English-language content included pointed reiterations of the claim that China – not Taiwan – had a superior response to containing coronavirus.”
Open-source researchers at Graphika and Bellingcat had earlier flagged the re-emergence of the so-called “Spamouflage Dragon” network, after it went dormant following the companies’ takedowns last summer.
The US State Department said in May it had found a network of inauthentic Twitter accounts with “highly probable” linkages to China disseminating false coronavirus claims.
Twitter pushed back on the assertions at the time, saying the 5,000 accounts the agency identified included legitimate non-governmental organisations and journalists.
A Twitter spokeswoman on Thursday said the network it removed was not related to what the State Department had identified.
Over the past year, a large number of Chinese diplomats and diplomatic missions set up Twitter or Facebook accounts, often using them to attack Beijing’s critics around the world.
Last month, Twitter flagged a tweet written in March by a Chinese government spokesman that suggested the US military brought the novel coronavirus to China, as the social media platform ramps up fact checking of posts.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Twitter also removed two smaller state-backed operations which it attributed to Russia and Turkey, both focused on domestic audiences.